What those oceanic cable cuts mean to you

Are we at the dawn of a new era of cable terrorism?

Forget the Super Bowl. Ignore the presidential primaries. For network geeks, the really big news recently was the cable outages in the Mediterranean, which disrupted Internet connections to Europe and the Middle East. The outages have raised a host of questions about the vulnerability of the Internet and the action plans enterprises should have in place to protect themselves from the consequences. Here are some frequently asked questions -- and the answers.

Is it likely the cable cuts were intentional? And more importantly, are we at the dawn of a new era of "cable terrorism," in which malcontents try to disrupt global communications via cable cuts?

A: Nope. Cutting cables is a lot more difficult than it looks. For one thing, you have to first locate the cables -- no small feat when they're somewhere in the middle of an ocean, under miles of water. Even with the latest-and-greatest technology, this is no easy task. According to the delightful book Blind Man's Bluff , the United States spent a fair amount of time in the 1960s and 1970s attempting to locate and tap Soviet cables. Although there reportedly were noteworthy successes, they required decades of focused effort and investment in a fleet of nuclear submarines. Terrorists have easier ways to make trouble.

Should enterprises protect themselves against cable cuts by multihoming?

Again, no. Multihoming -- connecting to more than one ISP -- achieves Layer 3 diversity, but ignores the fact that when it comes to transoceanic links, traffic from different ISPs typically is consolidated onto a single set of pipes. In other words, just because you're connecting to both Sprint Nextel and Verizon, for example, doesn't necessarily mean your traffic is traversing the Atlantic on different optical cables.

So, what's the best way to ensure redundant connectivity?

Ask your carriers for cable routes. Keep a current map of planned and deployed transoceanic cables on your wall, and get confirmation from your providers regarding which of those cables they're using. (Here's a really good trick: Get a laminated map, and mark it up with erasable markers to show which cables your providers are relying on.) For mission-critical sites -- such as data centers and call centers -- make sure you've got minimally two- or three-way redundancy. Satellite services may be an option for remote sites -- but latency can hammer real-time applications (such as voice, video and interactive applications).

Are there any other impacts and issues?

Yes. When outsourcing, you need to recognize that not all geographies are created equal. If you're debating whether to place your data center or contact center in, for example, Dubai or Singapore, make sure you check on the cabling redundancy. And keep in mind you're not thinking just about vulnerability to accidental cuts -- you'll want to ask yourself how vulnerable the networks are to natural disasters (tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes) as well as political instability. Power availability is another key factor.

The bottom line? Although we're increasingly accustomed to living "virtually," don't forget: The physical world still matters.

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Johna Till Johnson

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