In a flip of the proverbial switch, the Internet lifeline for 400,000 users
disappeared in an incident that illustrates how frail the Net-based
communications network really is.
Internet service provider Netcom's
400,000-plus subscribers found themselves
with no access for 13 hours from late Tuesday afternoon to early Wednesday
morning because of a network outage resulting from human error.
The outage was caused by a Netcom programmer in San Jose, California, who
entered an incorrect command and let too much traffic in, overwhelming the
nationwide ISP's point-of-presence servers and hub routers. Netcom was
eventually forced to close the system, leaving users without email, Web access,
or any other Internet services.
A Netcom official said there was no
loss of data, as email caught in limbo either bounced back to the original
or was held in the system until access was restored. However, Netcom's stock fell $4.50 on Thursday to
$28.75, the same price it closed at today.
Company officials did not specify how many businesses were affected, but more
than 20 percent of Netcom revenue comes from business users, a figure
expected to rise as Netcom focuses on businesses and experienced users, as
well as foreign markets,
in its future expansion plans.
The outage primarily affected the ISP's evening users, but the possibility
of network downtime during peak business hours has left businesses
wondering how they can cope with ISP failures as they rely more than ever
on electronic information exchange over an ever-increasingly crowded
For example, Mann Consulting, a
multimedia development company in San
Francisco, depends on the Internet to ship software to Hollywood studios and
film crews around the world that allows computer screens to be filmed without
visual interference. The company uses the Internet to link to remote locations
on a temporary basis.
Mann, like other companies that can't afford any downtime, routes around his
main ISP's outages by maintaining alternate Internet accounts with other
providers. "We've had ISPs lose entire Web sites' worth of data. We assume
failure and build around it," said Alex Mann, company principal. "We have
among us eight or nine accounts. That's even getting down into individuals'
AOL accounts. You don't keep a movie crew waiting."
As if to underscore the reliability problems Internet companies are facing,
America Online members on the same day as
the Netcom snafu were left without email for about an hour due to a
software problem. Furthermore, technicians will shut down the Microsoft Network web site and online service
for up to 24 hours starting at 11 p.m. on Saturday night for a power supply
upgrade. Subscribers will be able to access the Internet, but incoming
email will be held and delivered when the system is back on line.
Netcom is looking into upgrading its router software, a move that wouldn't
prevent future network floods but could at least slow down the mushrooming
effect that finally overwhelmed the system.
Netcom has grown significantly in the past year, with a subscriber increase of
243 percent in the 12 months ending March 31, including 83,500 new
subscribers in the first three months of this year alone.
The foulup comes at a time when the competition in the network access
market is fierce. While scores of new users sign up every day, many
analysts are predicting behemoths like AT&T and the Baby Bells who have the
infrastructure to accomodate ever-increasing Net traffic will either drive
smaller, independent ISPs like Netcom and PSINet out of business or swallow them up
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