Cyclone Vardah: A calamity that has managed to impact the internet connectivity of a nation

Cyclone Vardah has not only wreaked havoc on Chennai and the surrounding countryside; it’s also temporarily brought our nation’s internet to its knees.

Cyclone Vardah has not only wreaked havoc on Chennai and the surrounding countryside; it’s also temporarily brought the nation’s internet to its knees. How could a single cyclone affect an entire nation as vast as India?

It isn’t entirely wrong to say that the internet is our lifeline. It determines how effectively we’re able to transact, interact and satiate our appetite for information. And considering that we're currently undergoing a transition towards becoming a digital economy, internet connectivity is all the more important.

Unfortunately, we only realise the significance of this lifeline when we witness a downtime. That’s one of the impacts of the recent Cyclone Vardah in Chennai. But why would a cyclone geographically far away from western or northern India manage to impact users in Mumbai or even Delhi? What probably seemed like an isolated cyclone passing through the southern peninsula of India, did have an impact on many of us living far in the hinterland.

How we're wired as a nation

In case you're wondering, the internet is essentially a network of networks that handle data. When you interact with the internet, the requisite information is passed around interconnected networks that make up the internet via a complicated matrix of routers and servers until each piece of the information reaches its intended destination. This happens each time you're enjoying a video on YouTube or engaging in that pointless conversation on WhatsApp. As long as you're dependent on a data network, you're connected to a network of networks.

Image: Reuters

An optical fibre cable used by ISPs to connect consumers at the premise. Image: Reuters

These networks work in a hierarchy. Any internet Service Provider (ISP) such as MTNL, You Broadband or Airtel, owns and operates a network. Let's consider the region of Mumbai to begin with. All the networks in Mumbai will connect to larger, city-wide networks which connect to statewide networks which then connect to nationwide networks and then to a global network to form the internet. With the kind of bandwidths we're talking about, it's impossible to interconnect without optical fiber cables.

In India, access to the global network happens via four “gateways” located one each in Chennai, Mumbai, Cochin and Tuticorin. These gateways connect India directly with Europe, Singapore, Africa, the Middle East and other countries, usually via submarine cables (India has 8 such cables).

Simply put, if you're able to access websites faster, it's because these gateways are effectively and optimally balancing load to the network of networks. These gateways or nodes are points of interconnect – between India and the world wide web.

Traffic Jam Reuters 720

These gateways transfer data to and from India at speeds measuring in terabytes per second. If even one goes down, India’s entire internet traffic is directly affected. Because the load isn’t evenly distributed on these gateways, any downtime can have a disproportionate effect on India’s internet speeds.

The Chennai gateway is one of the largest gateways in India. We spoke to Dr. Govind, former CEO of NIXI to understand the significance of Chennai in the internet landscape of India. He said, "The internet is very critical for the country. We're going through a monetary policy change and hope to become a digital economy. We're growing as a country of internet citizens from 400 million internet users to approximately 750 million users, with a vast majority of them coming from the hinterland. Chennai is an important hub."

He adds that damage control measures would be carried out and internet traffic would be routed either to redundancy points in Mumbai or towards Singapore. Despite receiving notifications around possibly slow internet browsing that was attributed to Cyclone Vardah, the overall re-routing of traffic seemed to have avoided a shutdown of the internet in India.

What is the potential loss?

We tried reaching out to industrial bodies and analysts to get an idea of direct loss or impact of the cyclone. We haven't received responses to our queries yet, with some declining to comment stating the lack official tracking of potential loss arising out of a natural calamity on the technology sector in India. In addition being an internet gateway, Chennai is also critical to the banking fraternity since it is a major IT hub for banks to house critical servers.

In effect, a sizeable percentage of failed transactions or sluggish internet payment gateways could be attributed to a drop in internet connection speeds due to Cyclone Vardah. The importance of the Chennai gateway is enhanced by the fact that Google operates data centres and a peering hub in Chennai (and another in Mumbai). By some estimates, Google’s Chennai hub handles half of India’s internet traffic.

And it's worth nothing that India's vast network of approximately 2 lakh ATMs are dependent on ISPs for internet connectivity. If ATMs are unable to authenticate transactions, they will inevitably fail.

Image credit: Google

Image credit: Google

Peering refers to a direct connection between two ISPs (or servers) and a data centre is a store of data. Google uses data centres to store (or cache) frequently accessed data. Say you’re watching a video on YouTube, it’s a very bandwidth intensive action as you’re consuming a lot of data. Google dumps all of this YouTube data into a data centre in India to reduce the cost of transferring that data to and from servers thousands of kilometres away.

ISPs can “peer” with Google and access those data centres directly, effectively giving you cheaper and faster access to YouTube and other Google services. The problem is that the majority of ISPs have done just this, but without sufficient redundancies in place.

Image: PTI

Image: PTI

When Cyclone Vardah hit Chennai, it damaged network infrastructure and possibly damaged the submarine cable connecting Chennai to Singapore. It also damaged or temporarily disabled access to Google’s Chennai data centre and peering hub. As a result, Google had to scramble to reroute its data and internet traffic to Mumbai, Delhi and elsewhere.

In some cases, connections to Singapore were even routed through Europe, which makes for a rather long and complicated route. If you’re interested, a riveting but extremely technical explanation of the situation can be found on Varun Priolkar’s blog here.

So the next time you're hit by a cyclone, don't be surprised if the resulting domino effect ends up affecting your ISP, and in effect, your internet experience.

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