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 sender 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 network.
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 in mergers.