Reveling in a World of 24/7 Servers

I’m a morning person; always have been. I can go to bed hopelessly confused about a vexing problem and wake up at 4:30 knowing exactly how to solve it. Sleep is nature’s reboot, and I’m grateful for it. So this morning I was up as usual about 4:30, and I began to gather several pieces of information I needed. In doing so, I took advantage of scores, perhaps hundreds, of computer servers that quietly run and run, never stopping.

First I checked the headlines, organized for me on my favorite portal page, and as I did I clicked on 15-20 stories that I wanted to read more in depth. Each time I did, of course, I was calling on a server somewhere. Ditto my pass through Google Reader, as it pulls headlines and blog postings and assembles them for my reading enjoyment.

Then I needed to find out whether the little SD card reader in my Dell computer would also read SDHC cards. Called at 5:15 and talked to Earl, who checked his server and verified that yes, it will. And we had time left over for Earl to sell me a new battery for my computer (using a series of servers, of course).

Then I needed to find out whether the Canon camera we’re planning to buy from comes with a US warranty. Called about 5:25 and talked to Michelle, who checked her server and verified that yes, it does.

And this is not a morning-only phenomenon. Billions of times each day we access information stored on servers. Even our little sites, and, get between them about 30,000 page views per day, all pulling information from our server in Atlanta.

Why do I talk about this on a subsistence farming blog? I bring it up because I’m aware of the delicious fragilility of this network of 24/7 servers. All indications are that our electrical grid is antiquated, overstressed, and under-maintained. We read in those headlines and blog postings about one nation after another whose citizens have had to become accustomed to periodic power outages; it seems only a matter of time before we will see the same problems in the U.S.

The feedstock of our electrical power plants is vulnerable. We’ve almost certainly reached peak oil already, although we won’t know it for sure until several years from now when we see it highlighted in the rearview mirror. Peak natural gas will arrive a little later (but within a decade) and with a more brutal finality; peak coal is coming faster than most people realize, probably around 2025. Peak uranium won’t be far behind but may be a non-event. Nuclear power plants take so much petroleum to build that constructing new ones may become no longer feasible, and in a world we’re quickly heating up as the result of catastrophic climate change, we may no longer be able to get the fresh water needed to cool them.

And even if there is somewhere a power plant generating electricity, getting it from where it is to where it needs to be will be a constant challenge. It takes petroleum to manufacture, install, inspect, and repair those thousands of miles of lines, cables, poles, and substations that we call our electrical grid, petroleum that will be increasingly expensive and hard to find.

And what becomes of all those servers, all that ready access to key data, when the grid is no longer dependable? We may need to read books again. So I think the consequence of this for us as subsistence farmers is that we will derive as much benefit as we can from the Internet, and we will learn all we can from it even as we are using it to share what we know with others. But we will do so with a keen sense of how ephemeral all of this is, and we will prepare ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally for life without it.

Yesterday Google’s elegant e-mail program Gmail made unwelcome headlines when it crashed during a software upgrade, depriving its users (including me) of access to their Gmail accounts for 3-4 hours. IT professionals were shocked, simply shocked, that a service like Gmail could be down for such an extended period. I fear, however, that this is simply a foretaste of the coming gritty reality of service interruptions of all kinds and will be quite unremarkable five years from now.

Yes, we will enjoy the ubiquitous avalability of 24/7 servers while we can. You should too.

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