Website downtime we know: but can the internet itself go down?

At Alertra, we talk a lot about the importance of uptime, of constantly monitoring your website’s availability on the internet.

But what about the internet itself? Is it possible for the internet to have downtime? Can it be taken down if someone wanted too, either for good or evil?

We’ve come to rely so heavily on the internet. Two billion of us bank, shop, learn, work, play and meet people online now (along with many other tasks). People’s lives are better and richer because of the internet and some businesses could not survive without it.

But can the internet break?

The internet – and the world wide web – have been described as ‘the one machine’. Because it’s not a centralized machine, rather a network of networks, it’s not vulnerable to breaking.

In fact, it’s the most reliable machine ever created because it has never crashed. It’s made up of millions of devices, so any part of the machine can fail and it will continue to work.

For example, when a major switching center in Manhattan was destroyed during 9/11, within just 15 minutes the system re-routed around the outage.

So if the internet is unlikely to break, can it be shut down?

Not in the sense that you can turn it off, there is no switch. It’s not a machine in our conventional view of a machine. But, a government can prevent access to its people.

It happened recently in Egypt in an attempt by former president Mubarak to quell a rebellion that became a revolution. It’s assumed that the government ordered the small number of internet service providers in Egypt to block the flow of data either in or out of the country.

What about cyber terrorism?

Could a coordinated attack on strategically vital data networks bring the internet down?

Well, with the terrifyingly sophisticated nature of modern cyber attacks, this is a possibility. It would be very difficult to take down the infrastructure of the internet at enough locations around the world (although in practice, this could be done). But malicious state sponsored terrorism could, in theory, disrupt the core internet protocols (the rules by which computers talk to each other) causing widespread disruption.

Don’t tell me it’s as simple as cutting the cables...

There are thousands of miles of undersea fiber optic cables allowing data to stream from continent to continent. These cables only come out of the ocean in a small number of locations and then branch out to eventually connect to millions of computers.

But because the internet is so richly linked, if one of these cable entry points (or even several of them) were destroyed, the network would re-route another way.

It seems then that we don’t have too much to worry about. The likelihood of the internet itself experiencing downtime is remote. As webmasters and web hosting companies, all you can do is ensure that your websites are up and available to your customers.

To ensure you can, let’s just assume (for now) the internet will always be there.