When the internet goes poof...!

A first-hand memoir of tragedy that struck West Africa in the past week.

For several years, I've often pondered over what would happen if the internet were to crash, or for some reason, if all computing systems in the world were to suddenly stop working. Well, this past week, I had a little foretaste of that.

As software devs, we live our entire lives in the cloud. Our repos are on Github, ready to be fetched from any device. We store our personal files in cloud storage. All of our life's hard work exists as bits on a server somewhere we've never been. We have no tangible representation of our work. And when the only network connection we have to our work is severed, there is panic.

Panic and frustration are the right words to describe the mood software devs in West Africa faced this past week.

I was in conversation with a client on Thursday, 14th March at 11 in the morning. I was trying to create a new project on GCP. All of a sudden, the internet wouldn't work. Nothing worked. Everything went down for a while. I quickly sent the client an SMS: "My internet is not working". "Same here", came the reply. After a few minutes, WhatsApp messages went through. My groups were filled with people scratching their heads and wondering what was going on. I was equally puzzled. Developers could neither push nor pull. I could not access any sites. A good friend of mine had to miss her class because she couldn't use her bank's app to withdraw money.

Within minutes, it became clear what had happened. The internet went "poof".

More clarity about the outage started to trickle in. At first, there were only speculations. But the truth became plain soon enough. 4 major undersea cables had been cut. The damage, severe. The time to recovery, long.

Being nerds, we began to try and figure out what we could do to save the situation. We tried many things. Some had to switch to networks that typically served lower customer bases. Others had to create VMs and forward all their traffic through those to access all sites. And some others went with commercially available VPN software. As I write this, I am connected to a VPN. I'm serving the internet through my phone's hotspot. My fibre provider is working hard to restore the network, but I currently only have a download speed of about 220 Kbps. At that speed, it would be better to sleep than to bother oneself trying to load anything at all.

While the service providers have been able to race time and provide a solution to help most of us, there are some developers who were not so lucky. There are some posts on social media about developers who have lost their remote jobs within these past 3 days.

Just. Like. That.

I can imagine how hard the engineers working at the ISPs had to work just to get us all back online. My hat goes off for each and every one of these dedicated heroes! We still have a long road to full recovery: a minimum of 5 weeks.

But the bottom line is this: what if the internet went poof one day? Where would my work be? Are our governments and ISPs only concerned with fixing the problem and not preventing future occurrences? Would satellite internet not relieve our over-dependence on fibre optics? Why should critical applications that are only used by the local population be dependent on external fibre connections or servers in other countries?

And if a solar storm and an underwater disaster were to simultaneously strike, destroying both satellite and fibre connections, what would happen to the world of tech?

I ponder and I wonder.