Could Extreme Weather Take Down the Internet?

New Amazon Datacenter Sterling VA

New Amazon Datacenter Sterling VA
Image Source: xcorex Creative Commons 2.0

This country has experienced 3 Category 5 hurricanes since 1934, 58 T5 tornadoes since 1950, and 1,319 earthquakes with a 5.0 magnitude or higher since 1900.

So consider this: What would happen if one of these monster forces of nature were to hit a major cloud data center? Here’s an examination of the potential impact, but to see just how influential some of these clouds are, it’ll be assumed that the respective cloud providers have no protocol for a power outage (although this is not the case).

Extreme weather could take down the Internet

Worst Case Scenario

Where would the most damaging hit be? It’s debatable, but the most detrimental hit may be in Virginia. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has one of their major centers in Northern Virginia. Rackspace—probably its closest competitor—has two data centers in Virginia, as well. And Virginia isn’t a stranger to natural disasters. Between 1851 and 2009, 12 hurricanes hit the state of Virginia.

Unfortunately, according to a 2010 article in Nature Geoscience, some projections (based on high-resolution dynamical models and on theory) show that the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones will shift toward storms that are stronger. Greenhouse warming would cause this shift, and the storm intensity is projected to increase 2-11% by 2100. While there are studies that project a decrease in the globally averaged frequency of tropical cyclones, there are also projections that there will be increases in the frequency of the strongest cyclones.

Hypothetically, if an incredibly strong storm pummeled through the centers located in Virginia, the Internet could suffer greatly. When only considering Amazon’s cloud (including all of its data centers), an incredible amount of information would be affected. In a study involving millions of people, ⅓ of those surveyed reported visiting a website every day that used Amazon’s infrastructure. In 2011, Amazon’s S3 cloud stored 762 billion objects. It’s possible that Amazon’s cloud alone holds an entire 1% of the Internet.

Breakdown of the Loss

Hundreds of companies use the Virginia AWS center, but here’s a look at some major websites that are at least partially supported by Amazon Web Services (according to The New York Times) and what it would mean if they went down:

  • Pinterest — As the 3rd most popular social network site, Pinterest’s absence would have a massive effect. According to AppData, Pinterest currently has 3.5 million daily active users.
  • Netflix caters to countless customers—in the last three months of 2011 alone, more than 20 million subscribers from all over the world viewed movies and TV shows using this service, according to Boston.com.
  • Reddit experiences thousands of viewers each day and even reached 100,000 unique visitors at one time in January 2012, according to Mashable. Operating with more than 100,000 subreddits as of December 2011, it’s clear a lot of information would miss out on being shared if the site were to be unavailable.
  • Instagram has more than 30 million registered users uploading about 5 million photos every day, according to their press center. You better believe many would notice if their go-to photo service was no longer available.

This is just a snapshot of the sites that find their homes on the cloud. When you look at AWS as a whole, it’s visible that extremely important information is stored there. Gizmodo reports that the United States government also stores information on Amazon’s data centers for sites such as Recovery.gov and Energy.gov.

Most recently, AWS created “GovCloud,” which requires someone to be a U.S. citizen in order to access certain information. Because of this additional security, more confidential information can be stored; like health care records and weapons information. According to nextgov.com, federal officials estimate that 25% of the government’s IT infrastructure could be moved to the cloud by 2015.

Examining the Extent

With so much important information stored on cloud networks, it’s important to keep it safe. Consider an area, like Virginia, as discussed—three major hurricanes that struck the state between 2003 and 2004 caused the damage or destruction of 1,400 businesses. With both AWS and Rackspace data centers (along with others) located in Virginia, it’s clear that security is a must.

It’s been said that, in general, AWS has thrived so much that it could hold a 70% market share in the IaaS (infrastructure as a service) space, reported CNN Fortune. Rackspace has been speculated to hold about 10% of the market—but that doesn’t make it insignificant.

According to Bloomberg, Rackspace has more than 180,000 businesses’ data stored on its cloud servers. And of its customers, Rackspace works with 40 of the Fortune 100 companiesWindows Azure also has a data center in Virginia, one of its 4 U.S. centers. Organizations like NASA, General Mills, and LexisNexis have used Azure, so it’s just another important cloud center to add to the cluster residing in Virginia.

While other cloud providers aren’t as open about who uses their services, you can only imagine how many businesses use other major providers. That’s why security’s so important, and also why these companies make sure to emphasize the measures they take to prevent outages.

For example, Rackspace explains it has power systems designed to run without interruption if a total power outage ever happens. Also, it has diesel generators on-site that can run indefinitely in case it’s necessary. Google’s cloud centers (including one in Virginia) also have primary and alternate power sources, along with backup diesel engines for emergency power.

Conclusion

The cloud is a convenient, cost-effective, and in some ways incredible network, but with thousands of businesses and organizations relying on the cloud to store data the need to have exceptional security is standard. With the potential for hurricanes to increase in strength over the coming years, the effects of a hurricane hitting a cloud center could be substantial. Thankfully, many cloud providers take security seriously and work to ensure that data is both available and protected.

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