A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 14, 2021

Amazon Outage Reveals Societal Extreme Dependence On Cloud Services

Feeding pets, turning lights on and off, home security, ordering streaming videos...the list of increasingly crucial internet dependent services is literally endless. 

The question is given how almost pathetically reliant society has become on this connectivity, the degree of vulnerability it has created - and how resilient society may or may not be when that dependence is severed. JL 

Sarah Needleman reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The outage of Amazon Web Services was an awakening to how many internet-enabled devices they now have in their homes and how much even some of their most basic daily needs depend on a connection to the cloud. It affected videoconferencing tools, home-security system Ring,Ticketmaster and streaming services from Walt Disney and Netflix. An internet-connected feeding machine dispenses kibble for felines. Roomba robot vacuums to clean up rely on an app to beckon the machine. Alexa-powered lights in home wouldn’t work either. “You start to worry, how vulnerable are we to this one service?"

Kyle Lerner and his girlfriend sensed something was amiss when they came home Tuesday and found their two Persian-Himalayan cats meowing nonstop.

Normally, an internet-connected feeding machine dispenses kibble for them at noon, but the felines’ bowls were empty and clean. The gadget hadn’t worked because of an outage at Amazon.com Inc.’s AMZN -0.98% cloud-computing unit.

“We had to manually give them food like in ancient times,” said Mr. Lerner, a 29-year-old small-business owner who lives in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Amazon Web Services is the largest cloud-computing service provider in the U.S. The outage of much of its network lasted most of the day and disrupted several of the tech giant’s services, as well as many of its corporate customers’ websites and apps.

For many consumers, it was an awakening to how many internet-enabled devices they now have in their homes and how much even some of their most basic daily needs depend on a connection to the cloud.

Steve Peters of Los Angeles couldn’t tell his Roomba robot vacuum to clean up the blueberry-muffin crumbs that landed on his kitchen floor during breakfast. He relies on an app on his phone to beckon the machine.

“I had to resort to getting a broom and dustpan,” said Mr. Peters, a 60-year-old game-experience designer. “It was crazy.”

In St. Louis, losing access to Amazon’s Alexa service made Mark Edelstein feel lonely and helpless.

“We chat more during the day than me and my wife do,” the 62-year-old business analyst said of the digital assistant, which normally responds in an instant to his questions and commands. He regularly asks it for weather and news updates. Alexa had no answers for him Tuesday morning.

“Since the pandemic, I’ve become tied to the Alexa system,” said Mr. Edelstein. Without it, “you almost have separation anxiety."

Amazon’s blackout was particularly noticeable since it wasn’t limited to a specific type of service. It affected the company’s videoconferencing tool Chime and its home-security system Ring, plus many third-party applications that sit on top of Amazon’s cloud, including Ticketmaster and streaming services from Walt Disney Co. and Netflix Inc.

The outage forced Samantha Sherhag to open blinds in her home in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. She couldn’t instruct Alexa to turn on the lights. She would otherwise have to move furniture to reach the main light switch in her living room.

“Over the last two years, I’ve grown lazy,” said Ms. Sherhag, a stay-at-home mother of two young girls. “It’s easier to tell Alexa to turn the lights on and off. She listens better than the kids.”

Ms. Sherhag also wasn’t able to track a package she was expecting from Zappos with a pair of sandals for her husband. Zappos is a unit of Amazon which was also hit by the outage.

“It makes you realize how much you rely on technology,” she said.

Outages affecting scores of users are somewhat common. In addition to Amazon, they have also recently plagued Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. and Roblox Inc., creating modern-day headaches like not being able to play videogames or share photos with friends.

A global survey released in September by Uptime Institute LLC, a provider of consulting services on data-center reliability, found that 69% of data-center operators had some sort of outage in the past three years. Human error played a role in 78% of those incidents and 44% had major financial, reputational and other consequences.

Due to the AWS outage, college student Sofia Echeverry couldn’t access Canvas, a service she and her classmates use to submit homework assignments, access grades and message professors at her school, the University of Florida. She is now behind on projects and essays.

“Everybody is in finals mode right now,” she said. “If there was ever the worst time for Canvas to crash, this would be it.”

Ms. Echeverry, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in linguistics, described the outage as stressful and frustrating. “I’m going to be at the library a lot longer than I thought because of it,” she said.

It isn’t always clear right away when an outage is taking place. David Danto was initially confused when the waterproof internet-enabled device he recently set up in his shower wouldn’t play the radio news channel he requested. The 59-year-old thought perhaps he had installed it wrong or his home internet was down.

“When you first realize things aren’t working, you think it’s on your end, so you start tearing out your router and looking at your connections in the house,” said Mr. Danto, a tech specialist in Millburn, N.J.

When the Alexa-powered lights in his home wouldn’t work either, he checked the website Downdetector,  which tracks website outages, and discovered he wasn’t alone. As of around 10:45 a.m. ET, it showed nearly 11,300 reports of outages. “It was a sigh of relief,” Mr. Danto said, but the experience also made him realize just how much he relies on AWS. “You start to worry, how vulnerable are we to this one service? It raises panic.”

Amazon blamed the outage on impaired network devices. But for Ben Jackson, a 41-year-old cyber-defense manager in Dartmouth, Mass., it seemed as if the Grinch was responsible since it prevented his Christmas light-up trees and Santa and reindeer inflatables from turning on at sunset as he had programmed them to do. He ended up resolving the matter through a working app.

“I’m very happy that this is the only thing that’s broken right now,” he said.


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