My Amazon Alexa went down yesterday, along with a bunch of Web sites that I use on a daily basis. I read that it was a failure of something called “AWS”? Can you explain what happened, please?
You’re correct that last week, on Dec 7, 2021, Amazon Web Services (AWS) failed and was down for a number of hours. This had a ripple effect on quite a few online sites because AWS is a utility that powers lots of the ‘net. Probably not accurate to say that the “entire Internet” went down, but it definitely felt like it for many people.
AWS is a powerful “cloud computing” platform that essentially offers virtual computing and file servers that can scale up or down on demand. Large Web sites don’t run on a single computer but are distributed across dozens or even hundreds of servers. When demand is low, systems can sit, underutilized, an ongoing fixed expense. Get a huge spike in traffic, though, and that same cluster of hardware might be insufficient, leaving the tech team scrambling to deploy additional hardware to meet the higher demand.
Instead, AWS offers virtual servers, allowing a company to allocate the number needed in a typical day, with lots more available if traffic surges. The AWS offerings primarily focus on computing, data storage and database access. For really, really big datasets.
One company that utilizes AWS extensively is Airbnb. With over 7 million properties in their network, you can imagine the complexity of maintaining their site and services. Disney also utilizes many AWS services, as does NASA, Epic Games, McDonald’s, Netflix, and Reddit.
The AWS outage from last week was described by Amazon as “an impairment of several network devices in the US-EAST-1 Region”. After an hour, the company posted “…we have seen some signs of recovery, but we do not have an ETA for full recovery at this time.” If your company is built atop AWS, that was alarming to read.
With the exception of this temporary “impairment”, however, AWS is generally quite reliable (because it has to be) and cloud computing for an online business just makes good sense. It’s flexible, scalable, and doesn’t require a massive up-front investment. No wonder so many companies utilize it.
The worst affected, however, were people with smart homes controlled by Amazon Alexa devices: Those devices were completely offline, meaning people couldn’t turn on lights and control their appliances. No bueno!
It’s also a good reminder to plan for adverse events rather than just assuming that our highly-connected tech will always be online when you need it. Just in case.
Pro tip: I’ve been writing about Internet, Web, and computing basics for quite a few years now and have amassed an enormous library of free help tutorials and guides. Why not check out my Computing Basics Library for more useful and interesting tutorials while you’re here? Thanks!