internet outage
August 14, 2014

Internet Issues Arise As Older Routers Reach Arbitrary Data Limits

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

If you’ve had trouble getting online or accessing your favorite website recently, you’re not the only one – similar issues are affecting customers and companies all over the world, and the cause is an obscure part of the Internet’s infrastructure that is struggling to keep up with the explosive growth of the World Wide Web.

According to ArsTechnica writer Robert Lemos, online auction site eBay, password management service LastPass and hosting provider Liquid Web are among those who have been affected by the performance issues, which are being blamed on “a novel technical issue that impacts older Internet routers.”

The Internet has grown too large for some older routers to keep up with, resulting in connectivity issues, said Business Insider’s Lisa Eadicicco. Those routers, she said, are only able to process a limited number of routes contained on the online roadmap, which is known as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routing tables.

Due to the rapid growth of the Internet, these routing tables are growing too large for the memory of the routers, preventing those devices from properly managing online traffic. Those older routers can only manage routing tables with 512,000 routes, but the number of global routes has recently surpassed that threshold, Eadicicco added.

“BGP is what tier-one ISPs, your last-mile ISP and various large networks use to route data from their own machines to others, and vice versa,” explained Matthew Sparkes, Deputy Head of Technology with The Telegraph. “When you visit a website, that data bounces all over the world, through machines belonging to all manner of companies and organizations. To make this work, machines called routers (large commercial versions of what you have at home) keep a table of known, trusted routes through the tangled web.”

“This routing table has been constantly growing in size as the internet expands and becomes more complex – more information needs to be stored in order to allow the router to bounce data to the correct destination along a logical route,” he added. “Until late 2001, the size of the table was growing exponentially, which was clearly unsustainable. A big effort to implement more efficient methods was made which temporarily slowed expansion.”

Those efforts were short-lived, however, and Sparkes said the amount of online traffic has now reached the point where these older routers simply to not have enough memory or processing power to keep up. The strict 512,000 route limit was instituted by programmers several years ago, trading a limited lifespan for reduced hardware costs, but new issues cropping up have resulted in connectivity issues, traffic slowdown and website crashes.

“The issue appears to have surprised many network engineers. Network-hardware vendors did not give much warning as to the dangers of the default configuration of older routers, and corporate executives likely put off resolving the issue,” Lemos said. “Overall, Internet experts do not believe the issue will dramatically impact Internet operations. Only older routers and switches are affected, and most can be reconfigured to assign more memory to routing IPv4 traffic, but at the expense of supporting the next generation of networking, IPv6.”

Ultimately, engineers will have to either raise their routers memory caps and reboot them, or buy new gear, explained Drew Fitzgerald of the Wall Street Journal. However, some of those firms will have to reconfigure their devices one at a time, which resulted in some websites going offline earlier this week and is expected to cause similar issues in the days ahead.

“The situation echoes – if faintly – the hubbub over the feared Y2K computer glitch in the late 1990s, when experts warned that systems could fail because their dating functions hadn't been designed to handle the turn of the century,” Fitzgerald said. “This time, Internet specialists are being careful to warn against a descent into that era's hyperbole and shrill warnings of disasters that never materialized.”

So while the situation may not exactly be an Internet apocalyptic, virtual end-of-days type scenario, the issue has been “adding to many engineers' real-life workload as recently as this week” and will likely be an issue until technicians can fully sort out the problem. Next generation routers can handle millions of routes, but as the Wall Street Journal noted, there will come a day where even that amount will not be enough to handle all of the world’s online traffic.