Glitches Highlight Limitations Of On-Line Systems Rapid Growth, Change Create Problems For High-Tech Information Networks

FRIDAY, AUG. 9, 1996

An 18-hour blackout at America Online disrupts the lives of thousands of users. The debut of MSNBC’s on-line service is tainted by blank screens. A surge in demand for information about Hurricane Bertha crashes a government Web site.

The quantum leap in the use of on-line and Internet services is producing a rash of growing pains. And, with many more people relying on the services for everyday work and communication, those pains are more noticeable than ever.

Many of the glitches are dismissed as the consequence of relying on new computers or software. Some result from poor planning, such as the National Hurricane Center’s unreadiness to process all the inquiries that poured in during Hurricane Bertha four weeks ago.

But the problems clash with the expectations people have for performance of communications systems. After all, people rely on their telephones even when the power is out.

“Everybody has been so spoiled by the reliability of the phone system,” said Derek Reisfield, director of strategic management at Westinghouse Electric Corp. “Everybody forgets that it took decades for that to develop.”

As America Online returned to normal Thursday, Chief Executive Steve Case apologized for the inconvenience Wednesday’s outage caused subscribers.

“We still have a long way to go to make AOL as reliable as must-have utilities such as electricity and the telephone,” he said. “But that’s what we intend to do.”

The company told investors in May that it was going to spend more money on technical improvements this summer. After two years in which its subscriber base grew from less than 1 million to 6 million, America Online has badly needed to update systems.

Strain from fast growth in early 1994 prompted the company to limit access during peak evening hours. More recently, customers have encountered trouble logging in and staying connected.

America Online deliberately shut down early Wednesday morning to add new software and switches to its main data center in Virginia. But an unspecified problem developed that prevented the restoration of service until nearly midnight.

Similar trouble bedeviled Netcom On-line Communications Inc., the largest Internet-only access provider, in June when it added new software to its systems. Service was knocked out for 13 hours.

“As the world goes digital, it becomes prone to breakdowns when upgrades happen,” said Maureen Fleming, president of Digital Information Group, a technology research firm in Norwalk, Conn.

The troubles are clearly turning people away. Subscriber growth has stagnated at the big on-line services. Apple Computer Inc. even shut down its service.

The AOL outage may be the on-line industry’s equivalent of the January 1990 national disruption of AT&T; Corp.’s long-distance network, which also occurred while technicians were adding new software.

“That event was serious and significant enough that it caused us to re-evaluate that aspect of how we operate,” AT&T; spokesman David Johnson said.

Now, when a software change is made to the AT&T; network, it is done with the planning and precision of a military maneuver. Everyone involved must understand what the new software is expected to do. Copies of the old program are on hand to re-install in case the new one fails.

“The technicians involved and supervisors must know what action to take if there’s something wrong,” Johnson said.

AT&T;’s trouble gave a boost to a new group of companies that broker phone service to large companies. If one carrier goes down, service is automatically switched to another. Analyst Fleming said AOL’s trouble may prompt a similar industry to form around on-line access.

“If AOL is concerned about customer retention, then it will start thinking about a way to manage that, to find a backup or simulate being alive during those times when it isn’t,” Fleming said.

“Either those guys are going to provide the resiliency or else people are going to come along with backup systems and they will win,” said John Mann, analyst at Yankee Group in Boston.

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