Sunday, 5 February 2012

Even the Internet is no match for our powers

The London Olympics could "crash the Internet", according to today's Observer:
The warning, in the Cabinet Office's official advice, Preparing your Business for the Games, says that the country's telecoms system may be unable to cope with demand to access the internet in certain areas. Businesses are being encouraged to offer staff flexible working arrangements to try to ease the pressure. ... The government believes that encouraging businesses to allow staff to work from other offices or home, or at different times, is key to easing congestion in the capital this summer.
It's easy to laugh at the utter thickness of this. If London-based employees stay at home and dial-in, this merely shifts Internet usage between nodes rather than increasing it (unless the implication is that out of sight of our bosses we'll over-indulge in video-streaming). Given the dynamic routing design of the beastie, this isn't going to cause any capacity issues within the bounds of normal traffic fluctuation (e.g. a Monday vs a Sunday). 

The Internet didn't break during the Beijing Olympics, so are we to believe it has become more fragile in the last 4 years? Maybe the Chinese are ideologically opposed to remote access.

Probably the biggest demand shock that the Internet experienced was on the 11th of September 2001, when everyone who had access went online. As I recall, it didn't melt all over the keyboard then either. What happened was that certain news sites (i.e. specific server farms) failed to respond due to demand way above the norm. In effect, a benign distributed denial of service attack (DDOS).

The net itself was fine, which you could prove by accessing other sites that either weren't attracting increased demand or had sufficient capacity to cope (e.g. Google, which remained up albeit slower than usual). We know that variance in demand will decrease as the volume of demand increases, so the Internet (and various server farms) will only become more reliable over time, assuming the infrastructure keeps pace with the growth in the number of users (up from under 9% of the global population in 2001 to 32% now). And that's without considering the efficiency gains of content distribution networks and other forms of caching.

This network meltdown is yoked together with the existing horror story concerning travel:
The Games organisers predict that on 3 August 2012, the first day of the track and field events, London's public transport will experience an extra three million trips on top of the 12 million made on an average workday.
According to TFL (a 2007 report), the average number of trips per person per day is 2.8, which means that the extra 3 million trips would be accounted for by just over 1 million additional people. The total Olympic venue capacity across London is 386,000. These will host up to 3 sessions during the day, so it is conceivable that 1 million spectators or more will be on the move, albeit staggered over more than 12 hours (events run from 10am to 10pm).

For comparison, when Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham, Charlton and QPR all play at home (which they do this season), the combined crowd is about 175,000. Obviously these games take place on a Saturday and/or Sunday, but usually within a shorter space of time (typically 1pm to 7pm).

What the quote above doesn't explain is that the estimate of trips already includes over 1 million bods who aren't residents or commuters (see page 17 of the TFL report), i.e. they are tourists or day trippers. Given that hotel capacity hasn't increased by that much, and many who might otherwise have visited London will avoid it in 2012, there will surely be a lot of substitution in the visitor flows, and that's without factoring in the impact of residents fleeing the capital for the duration.

I saw a map published recently that marked the "traffic hot spots" across London, with the implication that you should avoid these areas. One of them covered Wimbledon and most of the A3 through Wandsworth. As someone who lives in the area, I know from experience of Wimbledon fortnight that congestion is limited to a small area at Southfields Tube station, and that the locals cope (grudgingly) each year.

Both of these themes (Internet chaos and travel chaos) exemplify more than the quotidian desire to grumble about how shit everything is, or could be, and the more profound anxiety that we are just the wrong kind of snow away from societal breakdown. They also reflect an almost millenarian attitude towards the Olympics. We are approaching something unprecedented.

This was also on show with the much publicised "training exercise" in which Marines stormed a hijacked Thames ferry. This would actually be one of the least likely cunning plans for a terrorist group, but it made for some seriously sexy shots of boys in powerboats, which you don't normally see outside of a Bond film.

It was when I learnt that this exercise was codenamed Operation Woolwich Arsenal Pier that the penny dropped. The whole thing is a massive attempt at psychic compensation for the utterly damp squib that was the Millennium Dome, which the ferry passes en route to Westminster.

We want to believe that the Olympics will be worthwhile, but knowing full well that the much trumpeted legacy will be the usual broken promise, and suspecting that plucky failure will be our lot when it comes to the medals, we're left having to over-dramatise the impact of the event on travel, security and now (gawd 'elp us) the Internet.

Unless Godzilla emerges from the Thames on the 3rd of August, chewing the mangled corpses of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, it's all going to be such a letdown.

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