Why the Internet Didn’t Melt Down
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We’re more than a year into Zoom work calls, Netflix marathons and most of us being online more for everything. And the internet has not melted into goo, as some experts feared at the onset of the pandemic.
Households, organizations and individual websites have had connection problems, but the basic plumbing of the internet has mostly held together. It shows that technologists learned from past mistakes when the internet did break and built a more adaptable system over decades.
As the United States starts to open back up, I wanted to take a moment to assess what has gone right and appreciate the people and technologies that made our digital life sustainable. Nerds, I salute you.
I called Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, to ask her why there haven’t been catastrophic internet failures despite wild spikes in online traffic during the pandemic. Last year, even Mark Zuckerberg was worried that his company might not be able to keep up with all of the people hopping on Facebook’s apps.
Dr. Sherry gave me two explanations. First, she said, the internet’s biggest vulnerability — its interconnectedness — is also its greatest strength. And second, digital services have been cleverly designed for weird and imperfect conditions.
“The underlying infrastructure that makes everything work is constantly adapting to failures, and it’s doing a pretty good job,” Dr. Sherry told me.
Her first point is largely about the prevalence of cloud computing. The technology, popularized in part by Amazon, essentially lets any website or app pay for someone else to handle all or parts of its digital operations instead of doing it on its own.
There are downsides to this approach. When one widely used cloud computing company has a problem — and it happens fairly regularly — it can crash the websites of banks, cripple supermarket checkouts, disable email and stop people from accessing news outlets online, including The New York Times.
The root cause of this fragility of our internet plumbing is also a strength. Because so much of the world’s digital services are handled by huge computer systems like Amazon’s and Google’s, many digital services can be more flexible in responding to spikes in demand and can more easily route around problems.
Dr. Sherry also talked me through a couple of other internet design technologies that have been essential to handle major increases in web traffic.
She told me about a technology pioneer, Van Jacobson, who invented software to automatically slow down internet data when online networks are clogged. She compared it to the freeway metering systems that limit the number of cars entering on-ramps during rush hour so that roads don’t become completely gridlocked.
Dr. Sherry said that his invention was a response to unusable internet in the mid-1980s, when networks mostly used by universities kept breaking when too many people were online at once. Congestion control algorithms are now widely used. And web video companies have designed software on a similar premise to automatically downgrade internet video quality if internet networks are clogged.
Those techniques, Dr. Sherry said, are adaptations based on the principle that the internet is never going to be perfect, and anything we access online must be able to function under less-than-ideal conditions. “The broad theme of all this is agility and adaptability,” she said.
Yes, online services in many countries did bog down when the pandemic hit last year, and internet service providers and website operators scrambled to add more computers and capacity to unclog networks. Our home networks and the individual internet connections running into our homes tend to be the most common points of failure. But again, the architecture of the broad internet system is fairly healthy.
I asked Dr. Sherry if we should take more notice of what works about the internet. Should we thank Van Jacobson when Netflix streams pretty well while we’re riding in a moving car?
She said that not noticing is a sign of a system working as intended. “I don’t know that much about how my car works,” Dr. Sherry said. “I trust it.”
Before we go …
Computers have the same flaws as humans: People train the machines and therefore our biases can creep into artificial intelligence systems. My colleague Cade Metz writes about people and organizations that are trying to identify and remove bias from artificial intelligence software before it’s widely used for high-stakes decisions like who should receive housing, health care and credit.
More evidence of the internet’s age verification problem: U.S. law effectively requires websites and apps to get parental permission before children under 13 use online services, but it’s difficult to enforce the rules. One example: TikTok said it removed more than seven million accounts in the early months of 2021 because the company believed they belonged to children under 13, Axios reports. My colleagues last year wrote about the large percentage of TikTok users that are most likely underage.
A phone company doing something clever?!?! T-Mobile is letting people test drive its mobile phone service without signing up, The Verge reported. People with newer iPhones can download an app and try the T-Mobile network side-by-side with their existing phone carrier for 30 days.
Hugs to this
Here is Sivuqaq the walrus clapping, loud enough to be heard on the other side of his tank’s four-inch-thick glass walls. My colleague Sabrina Imbler explained how and why Sivuqaq claps.
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