Wednesday, 4 June 2008

When The Lights Went Out

Last week the Internet stopped working for us. My thoughts were that I must have pressed a wrong button or that my laptop was malfunctioning. I don't know why, but whenever something technical goes wrong I just assume responsibility. How wrong I was!

The cause of the Internet not working - for us, it was working for everyone else - was a major power cut in the UK National Grid. The BBC reported the story (see story), but there is so much in there that talks to the future. Apparently, a computer malfunction in the Sizewell B nuclear reactor led to an immediate shut down of power on safety grounds. This deprived the National Grid of 3% of its power needs.

The Sizewell shutdown happened to coincide with the Longannet power station going offline and seven other power stations being closed for routine maintenance. All of this combined to result in supply falling short of demand and power cuts - unplanned and unscheduled power cuts - across London, East Anglia, Cheshire and Merseyside.

The server for our ISP happens to be located in this area. One minute the Internet (web and e-mail) was functioning normally. The next minute someone turned the switch off. There is a future lesson to be learned here. As the economy becomes more interdependent, both locally and globally, our dependence upon these communications is likely to grow. However, this chain of complexity is only as good as the weakest link - in this case the power supply.

If these forecasts are right,

we shall have to become more used to the interrupted supply of electricity, with all of the consequences for IT and our use of global networks. Our growing complexity is leading us towards a world of greater vulnerabilities.

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