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08 June 2021

What is Fastly and how did it cause the global internet outage?

08 June 2021

A little-known US internet infrastructure firm has been at the centre of major global internet outage after an error in its network took some of the world’s biggest websites offline.

But what is Fastly, and how did this disruption happen?

– What happened?

A wide range of the world’s biggest and most popular websites were pushed offline or had issues displaying images or other content because a service used to display that content – Fastly – suffered an outage of its own, causing many of the websites that use it to be disrupted.

Sites including the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and the New York Times, the online forum Reddit, Twitter, Amazon and the UK Government’s site were all hit by the problem.

Fastly confirmed it had located an issue within its network that triggered the disruption and had now fixed it, slowly bringing its services back online.

– What is Fastly?

The US cloud computing firm is what is known as a Content Delivery Network (CDN), which essentially aims to make websites work better and load faster.

They do this by storing versions of a company’s website in servers spread around the world so that they can be accessed by local users more quickly.

This is required because many modern websites are often full of videos, high-resolution images and other content which would otherwise take longer to load – so this process helps streamline it and improve the experience for internet users.

This set-up is also used to help at times of traffic surges to ensure as many people as possible are able to get onto a website and to protect websites from denial-of-service attacks which try to crash websites by flooding them with traffic.

– So how did this happen?

In its statement on the incident, Fastly said an issue within its own programming had inadvertently sparked the problem.

The company said it had “identified a service configuration that triggered disruption across our POPs (points of presence) globally and have disabled that configuration”.

The company confirmed it had now applied the fix and its network was coming back online.

The broader reason for the outage being so widespread can be linked to the fact that only a handful of companies can currently offer CDN and other web hosting services, and do so on a scale capable of supporting the size of the modern day internet.

As a result of this centralisation of online infrastructure, a single issue anywhere in one of these networks could cause widespread outages.

– What impact did this incident have?

The UK Government website going down meant the online services available through the website, such as applying for official documents such as passports and other services, were temporarily unavailable.

However, the NHS website and its site for booking coronavirus vaccines appeared to be unaffected.

Meanwhile, many news websites were initially unable to report on the incident because their websites were down, with reporters taking to social media to try and give updates on the story.

Consumer champion Martin Lewis also warned people to be wary of scam websites appearing at the top of search results during the outage.

“With website being down right now, be v careful if renewing passports, GHICs (Global Health Insurance Card), applying for marriage tax allowance, driving licence etc,” he tweeted.

“Top of search will be ads for shyster sites which look like the real thing yet charge unnecessarily.”

Internet browsing (PA Archive)

– How can this be prevented in future?

In the short term, there is no obvious, immediate fix.

Increasing the number of CDNs and developing fail-safes such as switching a website to another CDN if an issue occurs with its primary provider would likely come with a high level of technical complexity and incur huge costs.

But experts have encouraged individual websites to look into creating their own contingencies to keep their site online should this happen again.

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