Sites large and small suffered brief downtime this week when a massive internet outage caused widespread 503 error messages. If your author website went down then you were in good company, with services hosting CNN, BBC, The Guardian, Amazon, Twitter, and even government websites suffering the same temporary fate.
But what is a 503 error? What was the cause? And what about your website?
What is a 503 error?
A 503 error is web jargon telling you, essentially, that the service you’ve requested is temporarily unavailable. This may be caused by a website server (where your website hosting is based) being too busy to handle the request. Or perhaps being down for maintenance. Or it may mean that while your author website hosting itself is perfectly healthy, an error occurred elsewhere. That was the case this week, as the whole whole chain of increasingly complicated infrastructure that delivers websites into people’s browsers ground to a halt.
How the internet works
Many websites – including those listed above and most of the author sites hosted and managed by Design for Writers for our own clients – are delivered to browsers via something known as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). A CDN is an incredible innovation which operates unnoticed for 99.999% of the time. It serves websites more quickly to your phone, laptop, or however else you consume internet content. If you’re browsing the web, then you get to view those sites more quickly, making your experience happier. If you own a website served over a CDN you’ll benefit from those happier visitors.
CDNs achieve this by having multiple copies of your site around the world. So if you’re an author with a website hosted in the UK, and someone is trying to access it in the United States, they will be served a copy of your site from a data centre nearest to them. This shaves crucial time from page loads which, cumulatively, makes the experience of using your site that much more enjoyable (and can even benefit your SEO).
If it helps, picture your author website as a physical product, with copies stored in warehouses in countries all over the world. When someone in Edinburgh orders your product, it’ll be quicker to deliver it to them from the warehouse in London than from the one in Texas. That, essentially, is the job of the Content Delivery Network.
So what did happen?
What happened on Tuesday – for authors and many others besides – was that a major provider of website hosting infrastructure – Fastly – suffered a rare issue. Fastly is one of those companies that most people will never hear of. This despite the fact that we all interact with some of the world’s biggest services via their infrastructure every day. The full details can be found here, but in summary: an undiscovered software bug was triggered by a settings change. Importantly, this bug was not a malicious injection, but something introduced into the Fastly codebase by accident.
Fastly have been open about the issue, and are working to draw lessons so that similar things can’t happen again. But to be fair to them, they had detected it in less than one minute, immediately had engineers working to resolve it, and within 49 minutes were operating at almost full capacity again, with sites back up and running around the world.
Was your website hosting affected?
If your author website is well hosted and managed, then there’s a good chance that it was affected. Here at Design for Writers, many of the sites we host for our wonderful clients are served via Fastly’s CDN. In truth it seems that barely any of those clients even registered that their site was briefly down at all. In such an interconnected world, temporary failures will happen which are beyond almost anyone’s control. It’s how your website host is prepared to manage those disruptions that matters.
We use a CDN for our author sites because the service is – almost without fail – impeccable. It benefits website owners and visitors every minute of every day. When a rare outage such as this occurs, the pain is real of course. But weighed against the alternative of slower page load speeds every day, the benefits are clear. Especially when teamed up with other features of quality managed hosting such as security, backups, updates, and so much more.
So we will continue to partner with the leading service-providers on the web for the benefit of the many authors whose websites we build, host and serve. Because every day it makes those sites better, even on those rare occasions when something does go wrong. That’s when we and those trusted partners will be actively working to get everything back on track. Which is why, after all, so many authors say such lovely things about our service.