Mike Isaac

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Twitter’s Bad Day: Site-Wide Outages Recall the “Fail Whale” Era

After nearly a year without any significant periods of downtime, using Twitter was almost nothing like the early days of being on the service.

So when Twitter went down on Thursday morning for a period of more than an hour, it was something of a shock to its regular users. After nearly six months of site reliability above 99 percent, Twitter was unreachable across the Web and mobile devices multiple times over the course of the day, with intermittent periods of uptime and downtime.

Twitter representatives offered little initial explanation for the outages until around 1 pm PT, and only in short, 140-character bursts of information via the company’s official Twitter account. It wasn’t until about 4:30 pm that Twitter offered a lengthier explanation of the day’s events.

“It’s imperative that we remain available around the world, and today we stumbled,” Twitter VP of Engineering Mazen Rawashdeh wrote in a blog post on Thursday afternoon explaining the outages. “Not how we wanted today to go.”

The problem, Rawashdeh explained, had to do with what is called a “cascading bug” — a term that quickly spawned its own parody Twitter account — in one of the company’s infrastructure components. That bug wasn’t confined to an individual element of the company software, so it created a cascading effect, spreading to other parts of the software and affecting Twitter’s 150-million-plus users.

Twitter’s explanation came after a day of speculation that ran the gamut, ranging from purported DDoS attacks, to potential problems in Twitter’s recent physical headquarters relocation, and even to the far-fetched positing that a trend of animated GIF avatars could have caused the widespread outage.

Mundane as the cause may have been, however, it was an unwelcome reminder of the site’s unreliable history. There was the “fail whale” of the early days, a cutesy cartoon that slowly grew as irksome as the Blue Screen of Death the more ubiquitous it became. Back then, site-wide outages were hardly newsworthy events, common enough that early adopters grew accustomed to them over time.

But Twitter has scaled over the past six years from an easily dismissed Silicon Valley plaything to the next most-anticipated technology company IPO. It is currently in the midst of a major internal reorganization, the blueprints of which come straight from the top. And, ever expanding, the company was forced to move offices just recently as its headcount ballooned from the low hundreds to close to 1,000 over the past year.

So, as it approaches its sixth birthday this July, staying as far away as possible from the days of “the whale” is crucial for Twitter, lest it still be seen as a reminder of the problematic early days of a company working through its growing pains.

Just as Facebook — Twitter’s predecessor and closest comparable Valley rival — knows so very well, the gradual move from scrappy start-up toward the limelight only draws more attention, and more intense scrutiny. Look, for example, at Facebook’s daylong struggle with intermittent downtime back in 2010, when the company underwent massive network outages. Or, more recently, look at Apple’s struggles with its beta product Siri being continuously connected and serviceable. In both cases, the press — and the Web at large — were up in arms over the disturbances in service uptime from two large, very noticeable companies.

Now for Twitter, akin to Facebook and even Apple, there is much more at stake. Twitter announced at the Cannes Lions Festival this morning that it plans to roll out its advertising products to more than 50 countries internationally. And, just a week prior to this, Twitter debuted its first series of television commercials, in cooperation with Nascar, showcasing to marketers just what companies can do if they spend ad dollars online. Yes, the downtime is an annoyance to the everyday users who want to tweet out pictures of their breakfast — but there’s real money on the table as well.

To be fair, much of Twitter’s early “fail whale”-era issues were related to scaling: Too many tweets, too much data and a fledgling infrastructure that just couldn’t keep up under the heavy load. Thursday’s downtime saw no sign of the dreaded white whale, signaling an error of a different — and perhaps more complicated — nature.

But for the spurned user and paying advertiser, these reasons don’t matter. And that spotlight on the company will only grow more focused over time. Now it’s Twitter’s turn to prove it can handle it.

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