Google gives us a small glimpse of what could be

  • Opinion - Chicago (IL) - When a well-oiled machine is working, and has been for quite some time, nobody pays it any mind. It becomes part of the base toolset used reliably everyday to carry out the larger tasks built upon it. And while those larger tasks depend on each lower-level tool working properly, when one fails we quickly begin to realize the extent and scope to which our house of cards has been built.

    At various times last Friday and Saturday, Google was having internal issues with their servers. These have since been resolved and explained. However, for those who didn't see the problems I'll summarize.

    On Friday evening, TG Daily staff members observed notable delays in Google News updates. Being in different geographic regions of the country, we were seeing 2-3 minute differences in the Google News front page stories, as well as sub-pages like Sci-Tech when these delays are usually less than 30 seconds. In addition, we ultimately observed "server not available" errors which persisted for far longer than their stated 30 second retry time on several occasions. And then sometimes when pages would come through, they would not be properly formatted with correct fonts or colors, indicating the CSS was damaged or missing.

    The next morning, on Saturday, Google's search engine stopped being usable. The searches would return, but every link was blocked from click-through access. It required manual intervention to visit searched sites. Google reported the problem was attributed to a human error. When they updated their list of "bad websites" (those containing some form of malware), they accidentally included the URL of "/", which is a component of "http://" address, for example, and therefore allowed their system to flag every website which matched that single character (which meant all of them) with the warning "This site may harm your computer."

    TG Daily reported on these errors on Friday night and Saturday morning, as did several other websites. Our readers quickly confirmed that they too were seeing the problem. And within a few minutes after TG Daily's article was posted on Saturday morning, Google had corrected the search error internally and everything went back to normal.

    Or did it?

    This approximate 40 minute outage has caused this author to review the framework upon which his house of cards is built. As an online journalist, I rely very heavily on Google (and other sources) to conduct research, search old articles, and really pretty much everything I do online that's not specific to my routine website visits. My preferred web browser (Opera 9.63), like most other browsers, has built-in abilities allowing a URL address to be prefixed with "g " to search for Google content, such as "g cookie recipe". In addition, Opera has a dedicated input box where all text entered is searched based on the current option (which I pretty much leave at Google).

    As a result of this very simple UI feature, I end up using those tools a few hundred times a day. And when Google became inoperable Saturday morning long enough for me to write about, it significantly impacted my mental calm.

    While I knew enough about URL addresses to immediately realize what I had to do to access the otherwise blocked sites, it still got me thinking ... what would happen if Google went down?

    Read on next page:What would happen if Google went down?, Cloud computing failures...

    What would happen if Google went down?

    The obvious answer is "I'd switch to Yahoo" or some other search engine. But that's not the real point I'm considering here. Suppose the search engines (all of them) were taken down. What if we had no way to access content on the Internet other than through known URLs from our favorites lists, and then their links which go to other sites?

    How many of us out here in cyberspace are prepared should something happen? It's something to think about I think.

    Anyway, Google is long since back up and everything is running smoothly. And while Yahoo probably has a few hundred thousand new users (or bookmarks at least), the reality is those of us who saw the Google glitch had our lives impacted for a brief time - and if you're like me then it really started a train of thoughts about the house of cards we all rely upon.

    I had an idea to see just how impacted we would be. Go into your browser's settings and block the website URLs,,,,, and every other search engine you can think of ... and then use your computer for a while. See how much it impacts your life.

    You'll find that your online life relies on technologies ... out there ... somewhere ... in the web. And when they are inaccessible, any attempts to surf become limited, unproductive and really boring by comparison. In fact, it's quite astounding. It's like the other test which says "when you're with your family or friends sometime in the living room, turn off the TV for 15 minutes and see how awkward it feels." We're really becoming attached to technology and I wonder how many of us realize that?

    Cloud computing failures

    Now we come to the meat of this article. It's really the reason I wrote any of it. While Google gave me a moment's pause this weekend, the reflections I've had in thought mimic what those related to cloud computing.

    We live in a world trying very hard to move away from individual PCs full of software and stand-alone capabilities, to those based on the cloud computing model. Microsoft has said their recently announcedWindows Azure will be THE model for the next 50 years. And with products like Google's Gdrive becoming very available, it will not be long until the financial incentives and available applications entice users to move away from the comfort of stand-alone PC and "step up into the clouds" for their computing needs.

    It may be important for our readers to realize that when that happens, the necessity of having functional clouds will be more important than having even functional search engines today. If we lost our search engines, our online surfing would be something less than is possible today, but we would still be able to send email, IM, access our word processors, finish up term papers or research grant proposals or whatever. We would not be left incapable or rendered unable without a search engine.

    However ... when the cloud computing model is fully realized, without an Internet connection to access our remote applications and data, and without a functional system on the other end, there will be nothing left for us to do. We might be able to go and find that old notebook computer stuffed in a closet somewhere and, provided the hard drive is still accessible, the power cord still works, and the keyboard and screen are functional, it might boot up and give us some access to some old software. But it won't be like anything we will have become accustomed to using. We won't be able to go from home to home, mobile device to mobile device, to work and play always having our same data and applications available as we did before.

    The cloud computing concept is scary enough when you consider that all of your data and software will rely on remote computers under someone else's control. But when you consider the fact that most of us at some point will throw our stand-alone PCs to the curb in favor of the much more enticing feature-rich set of cloud services ... then the reality is that any failures in the cloud will be far more damaging to us individually, to corporations, to families (who rely on the cloud's email, video and chat abilities integrated into every app), and much more that we don't even realize or can't see today.

    Cloud computing is going to change the face of this world, but it's important we realize what that means. And Google's tiny little failures last week have given us the merest glimpse into the extent to which our lives are already controlled by those remote machines.

    If you come away with anything from this article, let it be the mindset of consideration. Think about what it means to move from stand-alone devices to cloud-based models. We all lose something when we gain those things which might be sought after - in this case, mobility and the "anywhere computer." I just ask that we all consider if the loss is really something worth the "advance."

    Of course, all of these are just my opinions. I could be wrong.

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.