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MySpace feels the heat

California power outage throws the social-networking site for a loop. Can it improve its reliability?

All talk of global warming aside, the record-breaking heat wave that knocked out power infrastructures throughout California will probably be best remembered for making look really bad.

For nearly 12 hours on Sunday night and Monday morning, the popular social-networking site, which recently topped Yahoo Mail as the most-visited Web site in the United States, was disabled entirely. Its front page was replaced by a message from founder Tom Anderson about fixing a power outage that would optimally be solved within the hour, as well as a Flash game of "Pac-Man" as a peace offering for disgruntled users. MySpace returned hours later--the Associated Press estimated the entire length of the failure at 12 hours--with scattered complaints continuing through the morning from individuals who claimed they still couldn't access the site.

A statement from MySpace blamed the outage entirely on the sweltering temperatures that over the weekend crippled power systems throughout California, including the Los Angeles area, home to MySpace's headquarters, where temperatures climbed as high as 118 degrees in some places. "The area where MySpace's servers are stored had massive power outages and the backup generator failed," a company representative explained. "With power resumed, the network is now up and running."

No immunity from outages
The outage was unexpected, to say the least. After all, Web sites are far more stable than they used to be six years ago, when it wasn't uncommon for the slightest surge in traffic to mean trouble for the unprepared. EBay, for example, was notorious for site failures late in the '90s. These days, companies typically contract with third-party businesses that supply backup systems to keep everything running in case of an emergency.

And large Internet companies, particularly those in earthquake-prone California, typically have data centers in different parts of the country to avoid being crippled by local problems. Google, for example, is building a sprawling and secretive data plant in Oregon. The facility will be one of several Google data centers located far from the search king's Silicon Valley headquarters.

A MySpace representative declined to provide details about the company's computer network.

For many companies, "there are proxy servers that hold cached copies of every site and every page and every piece of information," notes Aram Sinnreich, an analyst at the Los Angeles-based Radar Research. A company like MySpace "needs to be backing stuff up--basically terabytes of data, on a daily basis."

But outages still occur, even on major corporate sites. Last month, an outage at Yahoo left some registered users without e-mail or instant-messaging capability. The Web's largest, free, classified publication, Craigslist, suffered a series of outages last month. The longest came on June 12, when customers were unable to access the site for two hours, according to, which tracks Web site operability.

More bad publicity?
Nevertheless, this weekend's outage raised eyebrows. It just didn't seem conceivable that MySpace, famously purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. a year ago, could fall victim to a localized power outage.

"It's frankly absurd," says Sinnreich, who thinks the shutdown was probably a consequence of "extremely poor planning and execution on the front end"--but that there might be more behind the story. "It's possible that there's some larger reason for the outage, like that they reached the limits of scale," he observes, citing the example of Friendster, which previously was the dominant social-networking site and had occasionally crashed due to excessive traffic.

"The company could be reluctant to admit it, because they don't want to turn off advertisers or their user base, and they don't want to get negative publicity out of it."

Already plagued by accusations that it facilitates interactions between teens and sexual predators, as well as recent discoveries of worms targeting MySpace users, the company's been dealing with a lot of bad press recently. A clumsy, 12-hour outage can't possibly improve the site's image.

To make matters worse, MySpace's young user base is a notoriously fickle demographic. If the service begins to build a reputation for inefficiency, glitches or frequent outages, tech-savvy teenagers and young adults could, conceivably, move on to the next trendy site.

And considering how many social networks have sprung up in the wake of MySpace's popularity, those users would have a lot of options.

CNET Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.