Play to win

The internet broke yesterday.

The internet broke yesterday and it was all because of the number 512

IF you experienced slow internet speeds, web pages loading weirdly or not at all, or couldn’t get online full stop yesterday, you weren’t alone.

Web users across the world reported varying degrees of connection issues, while some pretty major websites collapsed altogether.

Auction site eBay was offline for hours in many parts of the world, due to what it described as a “technical issue upstream” — meaning, something that wasn’t their fault.

Essentially, the problem seems to lie in the plumbing of the internet and the number 512. As the internet expands, more and more data is being pinged through its pipes. The routers through which the data passed were designed years ago with a strict number of ports to table the data — 512 rows of 1000 ports to be precise.

This number of 512,000 routes was picked at random by programmers as an educated guess to futureproof the routing table for web traffic flow. Now we have reached a point where this old hardware has too little memory and slow processors, which cannot cope.

With too many people on the road, the routers have hit their limits and it’s causing the internet to jam — and it’s only going to get worse, experts warn.

As The Telegraph’s deputy head of technology Matthew Sparkes explained, there is a fairly basic but hugely problematic glitch that is going to cause some major headaches in coming weeks and months.

Temporary fix … efforts were made a few years back to slow the congestion problem, but it reached tipping point yesterday. Picture: AFPSource:AFP

“When you visit a website, that data bounces all over the world, through machines belonging to all manner of companies and organisations,” Sparkes said.

“To make this work, (those) machines, called routers — large commercial versions of what you have at home — keep a table of known, trusted routes through the tangled web.”

Imagine you kept a written record of every reliable road you’ve ever driven on to get to a required destination. It’s kind of like that.

As you can imagine, that record of trusted routes has been expanding over the years and is now at a point where it’s putting enormous strain on the web.

Efforts were made to slow the problem a few years back and it brought engineers some more time. And then it seems everyone moved on to other projects.

You see, a permanent fix is hugely expensive and really tedious to execute. So in the background, the congestion has been growing and growing, until reaching tipping point yesterday.

Under strain … many mega routers are struggling under the strain and outages are expected to continue in impacted areas in the coming weeks and months. Picture: AFPSource:AFP

These struggling routers have flow-on effects that impact the rest of the internet, resulting in slower browsing speeds, sites loading incorrectly and total outages in some cases.

As the Wall Street Journal explained: “internet providers, corporations and universities all rely on a common map of routes to send emails, videos and everything else on the web where it is supposed to go.

“As that internet atlas thickens, some of the machines that read it are straining to hold all the pages.”

So, the internet is struggling under its own weight. The fix is simple, but it’s manual. In simple terms, engineers need to raise memory caps on each impacted router and reboot them.

Tech heads are working on the problem but it’s an expensive and tedious process that will take some time.

Echoes of the Millenium Bug

Those old enough to remember the Y2K computer glitch in the late 1990s might feel a bit nostalgic reading of more issues with a simple and anticipated technical problem.

Back then, experts were worried that systems around the world would fail on January 1, 2000 because of a catastrophic oversight in basic design.

Dating functions had not been designed to cope with the turn of the century and it was feared that when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1999, systems would think it was in fact January 1, 1900.

The super smart super computers running every element of the world, from defence to finance and beyond, would freak out and cease to operate.

Doomsayers spoke of planes falling out of the sky, electricity systems collapsing, mobs of people turning into crazed monsters and rioting in the streets and so on.

People stocked up on food, water and other essentials and prepared to live like nomads in an apocalyptical wasteland.

None of it eventuated, obviously. Perhaps that slight overreaction is why you didn’t hear about this latest drama — experts are less trigger happy than they used to be when it comes to issuing warnings.