Sandy huffed, puffed but couldn't blow the Internet down

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Sandy huffed, puffed but couldn't blow the Internet down

Opinion: The resilience of the internet provides one small consolation.

A large area of the world, ranging from the Caribbean to the East Coast of the United States, is busy cleaning up debris, bailing water and toting up the cost of the enormous damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Residents of these areas are also burying their dead. Estimates are that some 120 people died throughout the hurricane-stricken area.

We have a fairly accurate picture of what happened in New York, New Jersey, Newark and Connecticut in particular because that critical infrastructure, the Internet, survived Hurricane Sandy.

The resilience of the internet meant people could stay in touch, view up to date emergency information on the web and share images and thoughts with the whole world. Much of the news coverage of Sandy was sourced from ordinary people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and similar services.

Despite preparations ahead of the super storm, nobody really knew how well New York City, one of the densest information communications cynosures in the world, would handle a wall of sea water four metres high.

As the hurricane ripped through the city and surrounding areas, power services were cut to millions. Even a trans-Atlantic cable became inoperative as its two landing sites in New Jersey and New York City were smack in the path of Sandy.

Considering the tremendous force of the hurricane, it is amazing how well the ICT infrastructure held up. Sure, there were some notable outages as data centres became engulfed in salt water or lost power and their generators ran out of fuel.

Overall, however, the networks in New York survived the onslaught of one of a monstrous storm rather well.

While hardly an apples-for-apples comparison, it’s interesting to consider that the June and October interruptions to Amazon Web Services caused far more grief than Sandy did, as major Internet portals with hundreds of millions of users vanished off the web.

Obviously, the disaster programs enacted for the super storm-affected area — which has more data centres than anywhere else in the US — paid off. 

Despite the apparent robustness of New York’s ICT infrastructure, it equally illustrates that there is no reason to be complacent. Sandy showed that it is hard to predict exactly how bad a given situation can be, or how long it will last.

Lessons learnt from Hurricane Sandy

  • Putting generators and fuel tanks and pumps in the basements of buildings is a tidy, out-of-sight approach for many organisations. In low-lying areas that can flood, however, it’s not the wisest move. InterNAP lost both its redundant fuel pumps and generator fuel tank after water compromised them.
  • Speaking of Internap, when major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy play out, do not put your whacky sales people on social media. Data centre providers Peer1 and InterNAP ignored that advice and had staff hawking services on Twitter and taking potshots at Amazon. Soon after, Peer 1 and InterNAP’s data centres on 75 Broad Street, Lower Manhattan flooded and had to be abandoned. The twitterati noted it was a lesson in karma
  • Utilities can shut down the mains grid to prevent further damage, and roads can be closed. Factor that into your disaster recovery program.
  • Spread your assets around to multiple locations and be ready to use them. Use the internet for the purpose it was built.
  • News and information spread fast on the Internet which is great. Be careful though. Quite a bit of it is not true. Verify the serious stuff before acting.
  • Speak to politicians and civil defence administrators, and explain again how important and useful a free, ubiquitous Internet is. Sure, they've been told already. Trust me, they need to hear it again.
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