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04 May 2007, 12:40

Smoking causes disruption of data traffic

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Last Tuesday evening a fire caused disruption of the US research network Internet2 between Boston and New York. The fire destroyed circuits crossing the Longfellow Bridge between Cambridge and Boston. According to a report by WBZ-TV from Boston, a cigarette thrown away by a homeless person ignited a mattress which caused a fire on the bridge, destroying the fibre glass data cables.

Although repairing a network cable normally takes several days , network operator Level 3 Communication was ableto bring the circuits back up on the following day, as can be read in ChrisRobb's blog . Robb, who works in the data centre of the University of Indiana, is involved in the Internet2 project: an experimental high-speed network connecting more than 200 universities and research institutions in the US .

For an experimental network, outages are not of huge significance per se, but this incident is indicative of a potentially very serious problem. While we tend to react with vigour to denial of service attacks on our own local equipment (usually resulting from software bugs or traffic abuse), we have generally become complacent about the robustness of the physical infrastructure over which the internet operates. However, both accidental and intentional damage to this are surprisingly common and can have far-reaching effects. In 2004 an apparently accidental fire in an underground duct in Manchester UK took out not only many commercial operations but also the emergency services. An unpublicised vandal-induced fire in a cable duct in the same city in 2001 (described at a UK closed conference in the immediate aftermath of 9/11) stopped several ISPs in their tracks and brought to light a serious infrastructure planning problem: a high-robustness ISP that had leased links from several connectivity suppliers to ensure redundancy was disappointed to find that their providers all used the same cable duct, so all the "redundant" connections succumbed together to the attack, leaving the ISP connectionless.

Such incidents happen quite often, even occurring in such remote places as Stornoway in the Scottish Islands, where in 2001 a call centre operated by Iomart was denied service, apparently by a disgruntled employee cutting communications cables. The message is therefore clear: the chain is a strong as its weakest link, and no aspect of the infrastructure can be taken for granted.


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