The Internet is down -- now what?

If the Internet goes down, will you be ready?

Long does concede that certain functions would be a "challenge" without the Internet.

For example, Siemens uses the Internet extensively for troubleshooting and remote diagnostics by its major IT vendors, IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Cisco Systems. Also, the company receives 1 million e-mail messages a week via the Internet, he says.

There is a good chance that parts of the Internet will fail from time to time, says Neal Puff, CIO of Yuma County, Ariz. "But having been based on the Arpanet and designed to keep functioning when pieces are broken, it seems less likely that the entire Internet would stop working."

The county currently accesses its ERP applications via a virtual private network over the Internet, and it offers many Web services to citizens from its own data center, also via the Internet. But Puff says that because of reliability concerns, he wants to flip that around, offering externally facing services from a distant site and hosting applications for internal use in his own data center.

Puff says it is less likely that the Internet would be disrupted at a hosting company in a big metropolitan area that has a robust infrastructure and a lot of redundancy than it would be in sparsely populated Yuma County. Conversely, internal users are less likely to lose the use of their corporate applications if those applications reside in the data center and don't depend on the Internet.

These moves will offer some protection against network outages, but not 100% protection, Puff acknowledges. "If the entire Internet goes down, everyone's in a world of hurt, but I try to look at the probabilities."

Burned bridges

BNSF Railway Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, also uses a private, non-Internet network for its core operations and for transactions with major customers. But it uses the Internet for many less-critical functions that would be painful to lose if the Internet went down, says Beth Bonjour, assistant vice president for technology.

For example, BNSF uses the Internet for its customer help desk and to provide shipment-tracking information to smaller customers. Offering customers self-help via Web sites allowed BNSF to reduce its support staff, but now the railway doesn't have adequate staffing to handle the fax, telephone and other means of communication that it would be necessary to use if the Internet went down. There have been some limited Internet outages, Bonjour says, "and it's not pretty."

Inconvenient at best

Similarly, Intermountain Health Care uses a dedicated WAN to communicate with its major hospitals and clinics, but it uses the Internet for many other things, such as contact with vendors and health plan brokers and for access to WebMD, an online source of health advice. There are backups for some of those things. For example, ordinary telephone service can be used to communicate with vendors. But for others, such as broker relations, there is no backup. "It would be encumbered tremendously if the Internet went down," says Marc Probst, CIO at Intermountain.

Asked in a telephone interview if Internet alternatives are part of Intermountain's disaster recovery and business-continuity plans, Probst says, "We haven't sat down and gone through that kind of thinking. It's probably a very good thing to do, and we will, right after this phone call."

ICANN's Crocker says that although the Internet has serious vulnerabilities, some of them could be patched relatively easily. He urges IT and business leaders to speak up and demand better technology. "Today, the network operators, equipment vendors, government and business all seem to accept the idea the network is inherently dangerous and can't be modified in any useful way. I think that's fundamentally wrong."

He points to a number of practical proposals for Internet improvements that have gone nowhere, including Internet Best Current Practice 38.

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