A Digital Snow Day

David Morgenstern ponders the human limits of data security across the Internet. In the Web ecosystem, are disruptions to remote storage and other services a force of nature?

Frequent flyers are well aware of the principal of force majeure: the so-called "acts of God" that relieve airlines from their obligation to schlep us to the destinations on our tickets. Should the same expectation hold for our data as it passes over the Internet?

In the aftermath of the SQL Slammer, I wondered how consumers would react to this notable break in Internet communications. In a recent column, I predicted that Internet outages will take a toll on consumer confidence in Web services and remote storage.

One reader gleaned the proverbial silver lining when considering the worm attack and its outcome. Joel Ingulsrud, a product manager for Japanese display vendor TotokuElectric Co., compared SQL Slammer to a force of nature, albeit one man-made.

"I suggest that consumers deal with these disruptions not as strikes against the Internet as a viable tool, but as storms that come and go," Ingulsrud suggested. "We need snow days on the Internet to bring deliciously unexpected pauses to the frantic daily routine of digital life. If mail servers didnt go down once in a while, or your notebooks hard drive didnt crash once every few years, how are we supposed to come up with dog-ate-my-homework metaphors for the Net?

"Californian earthquakes are more painful than snow storms in their unpredictability as well as the effect they have on inappropriately planned and constructed buildings, but they have a similar social effect. Those of us from colder climates can attest to the utterly sublime peace, quiet and tranquility of a massive snow storm disrupting all forms of transportation."

So the attack of SQL Slammer is really an Internet snow day. In a similar vein, Ive noticed that other technology providers seem to be conspiring to boost the rate of my spiritual growth through poor productivity. For example, my broadband service provider must be teaching me a lesson with some recent, odd NAT routing errors.

Certainly, SQL Slammer offers many lessons: Server administrators need to be more vigilant in applying patches, and the markets concentration on hardware and software platforms make it vulnerable to such attacks.

Yet for individuals and even businesses, the Internet attack proves the adage: The more we rely on something, the less reliable it becomes. While in reality the Internet is more reliable than it once was and its protocols are more robust, still theres this perception problem surrounding reliability.

As weve integrated the Web into the fabric of work and recreation, weve come to rely upon its services more and more, for little things and big things. And when its unavailable, were stuck. Can you communicate anymore without e-mail or instant messaging? Even talking is now becoming a lost skill to the techno-elite.

While it may be disturbing for the Web services market, this perception problem reaffirms the importance of local storage of content and application servers. The rise of DVD movies looks to provide a proof of that concept. When youre stuck at home on a for-real snow day, you dont want to depend on connection to a remote server for your movies.

At the same time, a package of bundled content and small Web services would be a useful addition to NAS (network-attached storage) devices—beyond the optional backup software and storage-management tools.

Were all used to software bundles when purchasing imaging peripherals, such as digital cameras and scanners. A NAS customer might appreciate a set of Web-based small-business tools such as monetary conversion, maps for directions and retail directories. These buyers would be assured that these services will be available even when if Internet goes out.

Of course, all bets are off when the power goes out.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.