What mayhem would be unleashed if the Internet crashed?
A power outage in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon gave a glimpse of what it might be like as a swath of Internet websites went dark.
For hours, no one could find an apartment on Craigslist.org or buy a present for Mom at RedEnvelope.com. No one could Yelp or emote on LiveJournal. For hours, the 8 million virtual residents of the Internet fantasy site Second Life were inert.
A San Francisco data center that touts its double-backed-up system for protecting websites from crashing during power outages failed anyway on Tuesday, taking down with it Internet sites as popular as Craigslist and RedEnvelope, and raising questions about how safe the Internet is from power disruptions.
Just after 1 p.m., 40,000 San Francisco businesses and residents were affected by power fluctuations caused by an open circuit breaker, according to a spokeswoman at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
For most companies, it meant inconveniences. At some firms, employees were sent home.
But Internet businesses, which promise to be open every day and at all hours, depend entirely on servers and their backups. Many San Francisco Internet firms use servers at 365 Main Inc., which says it provides seamless backup in the case of a power outage. "How safe is your data?" reads a company ad in the firm's San Francisco lobby.
This time, the Internet firms found themselves in the dark.
"It was right in the middle of the U.S. workday, so it was very bad for us," said Derek Gordon, an executive at the popular blog-tracking site Technorati, which experienced a total shutdown from about 1:50 to 3 p.m.
"It exposed a larger vulnerability," he said. "If this could happen to such a collection of major websites, what would happen if this was part of a major catastrophe? This was sort of a wake-up call."
Miles Kelly, vice president of marketing and strategy at 365 Main, said the company switched to backup power, although some customers were temporarily affected by the outage. He said the company would discuss the power failure once it knew more.
RedEnvelope's site, which handles most of the gift retailer's business, was down for more than three hours. The outage happened the same day that 365 Main distributed a news release announcing that RedEnvelope had shut down its "redundant" data center in the Midwest and was thrilled with 365 Main after "two years of continuous uptime."
"The company's San Francisco facility includes two complete backup systems for electrical power to protect against a power loss," the release said of 365 Main's "co-location" site.
"In the unlikely event of a cut to a primary power feed, the state-of-the-art electrical system instantly switches to live backup generators, avoiding costly downtime for tenants and keeping the data center continuously running," the release said.
Other online businesses that got slammed were not pleased.
"Electrical power continuity ensured by multiple backup systems is a large part of what colocation providers are supposed to provide," said Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, adding that the site wasn't back to full strength after four hours. "We are extending our apologies to all Craigslist users for this unfortunate outage, and hope to have the site back to normal shortly."
In an unrelated problem, Netflix Inc.'s website was down Monday and most of Tuesday because of technical problems. The outage came as the Los Gatos, Calif., company's stock price fell to as low as $15.62 early in the day, its lowest point since June 2005, before finishing at $16.07, down $1.20, after the company reported a decline in subscribers.
Technorati has been a 365 Main customer for three years. "It doesn't seem very likely," Gordon said, that Technorati would remain a customer for three more years.
"You can imagine I have a boss who is hopping mad," he said.