APR 15, 2024 / Facebook

What can we learn from Facebook’s outage?

Popular social media destination Facebook made worldwide headlines recently, and not for the kinds of reasons that Facebook might want to be noticed. That’s because for a roughly 12 hour period, access not just to Facebook, but also Instagram and Whatsapp — all services owned and operated by Facebook — consumers worldwide had issues connecting to or using those services.

It wasn’t simply a matter of going to the web page or opening an app and discovering no access, either. For some users, Facebook might as well have not been there. For others, they could access their own profiles, but not comment on other people’s posts, and for some, no posts they made would go live, even though they could see their full Facebook feed. It was much the same story if you were an Instagram user or Whatsapp devotee as well.

It wasn’t even consistent — during the first couple of hours of the outage, speaking purely anecdotally, I could access Facebook just fine, only to find in the middle hours my ability to post was non-existent. Later on, it was fine for me but I witnessed others who couldn’t even get it to load up.

Facebook’s impact on the web is immense, even if you’re not actually a Facebook user. Depending on whose metrics you trust, it’s either the first, second or third most visited web property, sharing that top 3 placing with Google and YouTube. So Facebook being down had some serious implications for a lot of users, and in ways that go beyond whether or not they were able to share the latest silly cat meme.

If you’ve ever used the ability to use your Facebook ID as your login for other sites and services, that may have been down for you, and of course for any business that works with Facebook — whether it’s to promote their own services on a page, provide support for customers or simply to place ads in your feed — it meant lost revenue as well.

So, was it a gang of elite cyber-criminals, determined to squeeze some cold, hard cash out of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO?

Not quite. Facebook was quick to alert users that it wasn’t a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, where thousands of attempts are made to access a page in order to take it offline or reveal potential security weak points. Although it did so via Twitter, because… well… Facebook was down. While the impact was being felt worldwide, Facebook remained rather quiet, before admitting that the issue came down to server misconfiguration.

“As a result of a server configuration change, many people had trouble accessing our apps and services”, Facebook said on its Twitter account. “We’ve now resolved the issues and our systems are recovering. We’re very sorry for the inconvenience and appreciate everyone’s patience.”

If you’re curious, what that most likely means based on analysis of how Facebook’s systems went down is that someone at Facebook HQ made changes to the way its servers identify themselves to the outside world. Those kinds of changes happen all the time, and for the most part they’re invisible to the outside world — until something goes wrong. Because the server identification doesn’t (in effect) get mirrored around the world simultaneously, if there’s a dodgy server entry it can take some time — often many hours — before every system connecting to Facebook knows the proper routing information.

That would neatly explain why it was different for so many users, because the way their servers might think they had to talk to Facebook’s systems could differ depending on the routing information they had. Think of it like addressing a traditional letter. If your recipient moves, but doesn’t tell you the correct forwarding address, you’d send it to the wrong place all the time. It would take time for them to get the right address to you, at which point the flow of communications can be restored.

It’s interesting in a technical nuts and bolts sense, but you and I don’t actually run Facebook. So is there anything in this outage for us to learn? I think so. Here’s some quick takeaway thoughts for you to ponder on:

1) Is it your best option to use a single service – whether it’s Facebook or indeed your Google ID — to log into third party services? Would you be merely inconvenienced if you couldn’t access them, or actually in dire straits? If it’s the latter – consider another alternative, pronto.

2) For those who rely on Facebook for communications purposes, do you have a backup plan for contacting people if those services go down? Not being able to share a picture of your lunch sandwich isn’t a vital matter, but in some circumstances it could be quite serious. At the very least, consider how you might communicate to vital close family and friends in other ways.

3) If something goes wrong with your computer — or any other gadget — have you retraced your digital steps? That’s precisely what Facebook had to do to get its services back online, but it’s a good general approach to any tech problem. That last app you installed might have corrupted something, or perhaps you shouldn’t have left your laptop out in the rain. In the former case, maybe uninstall the rogue app. In the latter case, learn from your mistakes — or buy a water resistant laptop!

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.