Likely repeat of this week’s technical problems affecting eBay would cost the economy millions as the Internet runs out of space, experts fear
Problems that brought down websites such as eBay could become a regular occurrence as the Internet effectively runs out of space, experts have warned.
Technical faults could cost the economy millions of pounds in lost sales, it is estimated, because parts of the web are out-of-date and effectively “full”.
Problems affected Internet giant eBay this week, with British users of the auction site left unable to log on for much of Tuesday, resulting in huge amounts of lost trade.
eBay was inundated with Twitter complaints from traders who rely on the site to turn a profit, with many asking for compensation.
Analysts have put the problem, which affected other major sites including telegraph.co.uk and password manager service LastPass, down to a little-known, but crucial part of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the web called the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP.
BGP is essentially the ‘route map’ of the web, allowing Internet firms and large networks to send information to each other via hundreds of thousands of complex different paths.
When surfers visit a website, they rely on machines called routers to keep a table of known, trusted routes through the ever-expanding tangled web.
Now older routers are struggling to cope with smartphones and tablets which allow more people to access the web, more of the time – meaning routers need to be updated to cope with the extra traffic because of a lack of memory and processing power.
Some machines impose an arbitrary upper limit of 512,000 different routes, a number that experts say is beginning to look out of date.
This appears to be what brought down eBay, according the experts have said.
Dr Joss Wright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “It’s really a case of the routers being overloaded due to more and more devices and more and more fragmented Internet landscape of lots of little networks.”
Routers were increasingly unable to cope with the increased traffic, Dr Wright said, much as the human brain would be unable to cope with remembering “all the back streets” on a long car journey.
James Gill, chief executive of Internet traffic monitoring firm GoSquared, said: “This is likely to happen more and more the devices there are and the less the infrastructure is going to be able to cope. This definitely won’t be the last we hear of BGP outages.”
The problem is partly to do with computers relying on outdated IP addresses – the unique code given to each computer – Mr Gill added, with the old, numbers only system only gradually being replaced by the alphanumeric IPv6 system which allows more combinations.
“In that sense, it would be right to describe the Internet as full because they are running out of IP addresses to go around,” he said.
It could cost large firms such as eBay millions of pounds, and no little time, to upgrade all their hardware because it entails major project planning.
Business analysts said that a repeat of such network problems could cost online retailers and other businesses that rely heavily on the Internet, millions of pounds in lost trade.
Figures from the Official for National Statistics, show that weekly Internet retail sales averaged £729 million in June, accounting for 11.3 per cent of all sales.
Richard Perks, from the market analysts Mintel, said: “Online firms build up their reputations on trust, on delivering a flawless experience to their customers.
“If such problems become a regular feature, then that is a serious problem both for firms and for the economy in general.”