September 21, 2021

Latest Netflix Disruption Highlights Challenges of Cloud Computing

For some on Christmas Eve, “White Christmas” was a blackout on Netflix.

That’s because problems with Amazon’s cloud computing service, which provides storage and computing power for all kinds of Web sites and services, caused Netflix to go down for much of the day.

In updates on a Web site that reports on the status of its online services, Amazon traced the trouble to Elastic Load Balancing, a part of its service that helps spread heavy traffic among multiple servers to prevent overload. The company gave few details about the problems in its data center in Northern Virginia beyond this and did not offer an official statement or explanation.

Social networks filled with complaints. Some customers also complained that Amazon’s own streaming service, Amazon Prime, was down. Amazon said it had fixed the problem completely by the afternoon of Christmas Day, and Netflix said it had restored its services to most of the affected consumers by late Christmas Eve. But the episode highlighted how consumers are increasingly using “the cloud.”

As more everyday devices, appliances and even automobiles rely on services connected to the Internet, consumers expect those services to be available at all times. Yet all sorts of disruptions — harsh weather conditions or an apparent overload — can knock a service out for hours.

Last month, problems with the same Amazon data center in Virginia took down Reddit, Foursquare and Heroku. The instance was explained on the status Web site as “degraded performance” in some parts of Amazon’s storage service. In June, a lightning storm hit the Virginia data center, taking Netflix as well as Pinterest, Instagram and other sites off line for hours. That time, too, customers were offered little insight into what had happened.

In April 2011, an Amazon failure took down many smaller sites that had rented cloud storage space from the Internet giant. That time, the companies that were most affected were start-ups that were less likely to pay for so-called redundancies, or backup systems that kick in when a service fails. Netflix was not affected then, and said at the time it was because it had taken advantage of the redundancies that Amazon offers.

Netflix has said that it has built several redundancies into its cloud-based system. For instance, it stores its data across multiple “zones,” so if there is a failure in one zone, it can retry in another. It says it also spends money on more capacity than it needs, so that if there are large spikes in customer activity, the service is less likely to go down.

Joris Evers, a Netflix spokesman, declined to elaborate on why Netflix went down despite these safeguards. He said the company was investigating the cause and would do what it could to prevent the interruption from recurring.

“We are happy that people opening gifts of Netflix or Netflix-capable devices on Christmas morning could watch TV shows and movies and apologize for any inconvenience caused Christmas Eve,” Mr. Evers said.

Tera Randall, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the company has been “heads down” to ensure services are running smoothly and that a full summary of the incident would be published in a few days.

Amazon is one of the biggest players in online services, hosting data storage and computation for hundreds of companies, including Netflix, Instagram and Pinterest. Once a sideline Amazon set up six years ago, the cloud service has since exploded into a business that is expected to bring in about $1 billion to the company this year.

Other companies offer similar services, notably Google, which introduced its competitor in June. Microsoft is also in the business with Windows Azure.

Although the service disruptions may annoy some companies and their customers, it’s unlikely many businesses will end their partnerships with Amazon in light of this latest Netflix failure, said James McQuivey, an analyst for Forrester Research. He added that it was unlikely that a temporary service failure for Netflix was going to cause many to cancel subscriptions.

He said companies can pay extra to Amazon to add safeguards that increase reliability of their online services, but they typically choose to save costs and take the risk of their services going down temporarily. He said that Amazon has been especially popular among businesses because it has been gradually improving its services and lowering its costs.

Businesses, “of course, are going to say, ‘Gee, Amazon, what’s going on?’ ” Mr. McQuivey said. “But in reality they’re all getting such a great deal. I don’t see them getting that upset about it.”

For consumers, though, it may be a different matter. On Christmas Eve, Merrilee and Alex Barton were watching an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” when their Netflix feed started to stammer and finally froze, then began to buffer excessively. “It would try to load and get to about 2 to 7 percent of the way through and then just hang there for five minutes,” Mrs. Barton said.

Eventually the two said they gave up and — with nothing else going on in Farmingdale, N.Y. — decided to “nerd it up.” They played a few games of Minecraft, a video game in which the players can build whatever they wish. In the game, all the technology worked.

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Phones and Tablets Getting Game Power In the Cloud

We can shop on our phones and read magazines on our tablets. But playing high-end video games on a mobile device has been out of the question.

That might be about to change.

OnLive, a Silicon Valley start-up, on Thursday plans to release software that will let people play the richest, most graphically intense games on Apple’s iPhone and iPad, as well as on Amazon’s Kindle Fire and other devices based on Google’s Android software. In the past, these games have been far beyond the relatively anemic computing power of such devices, requiring the horsepower of a PC or a console. But OnLive runs all of the games on its service entirely on powerful server computers in its data centers and delivers them over the Internet, through so-called cloud computing.

Other companies are trying to do the same thing, including Gaikai, a start-up based in Los Angeles. If they succeed, a shift to cloud gaming could have big implications for the incumbent powers in the video game business, mainly the console makers Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. That is because running games in data centers means that consoles in the home can be far less powerful, relieving consumers of the need to buy a new generation of hardware in the future.

At the same time, moving gaming into the cloud could help push the boundaries of what cloud computing can do, even on relatively low-powered mobile devices.

Everything from FarmVille on Facebook to data backup services like Apple’s iCloud to Netflix’s streaming movie service are considered cloud applications. But playing high-end games in the cloud presents a much bigger technical challenge because of the importance of eliminating any lag between the moment a player takes an action in a game on his or her device, and when the game responds on the screen. Even split-second delays can turn serious gamers off.

OnLive says it has solved this problem by figuring out a method of efficiently packaging video images of a live game that it delivers over the Internet, and that allows for instantaneous response to actions by players as they control the movement of characters within a game.

In a recent demonstration in Seattle, Steve Perlman, the chief executive and founder of OnLive, showed a collection of well-known high-end games, including L.A. Noire and Unreal Tournament 3, on an iPad, Android phones and a Kindle Fire.

Although the games were running on computers in an OnLive data center in Northern California, they responded immediately when a player moved a character around. Some games on the service have been adapted to respond to fingers on a touch screen, but many work better with a $50 wireless controller sold by OnLive. That’s cheaper than buying a traditional game console, which starts at about $150.

“It’s amazing the performance he’s getting out of all these tablets,” said Richard Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering Group.

Mr. Perlman said OnLive would also soon introduce a service that let people run a full Windows desktop on iPads and other mobile devices, including Web browsers that can show Web sites with Flash, an Adobe graphics technology that is not otherwise available on iPads.

Last year, OnLive introduced an earlier iteration of its service, letting people play games first on PCs, Macs and television sets through a small $99 device it calls the MicroConsole.

Mr. Perlman predicted that the growing capabilities of the cloud, along with the high costs of introducing a new console, would lead to big changes in the business. Hardware makers can lose billions of dollars on new game systems before eventually recouping their investments through royalties from game sales.

“It’s our view that probably there won’t be another console and that this current generation is the last,” Mr. Perlman said. “The economics can’t support it anymore.”

However, even people who believe strongly that cloud gaming will become an important part of the market say they think that prediction is an overstatement. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said cloud gaming was still too new for serious gamers to switch their habits. Internet connections in some areas are not fast and reliable enough for gamers to depend on a cloud gaming service all the time.

“Realistically, there’s one more” generation of consoles coming, Mr. Pachter said. “It will take a while for people to trust the cloud and adapt.”

Nintendo has already announced plans for a new machine, the Wii U, expected to be released next year. But Sony and Microsoft don’t appear to be in any rush to introduce new consoles. It has been five and six years, respectively, since the companies introduced the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and neither company is talking about plans for a new system. Console makers used to introduce new game systems every five to six years. “We’ve got a lot of life left in the current generation of PlayStation with PS3,” said Patrick Seybold, a spokesman for Sony’s United States games division.

Some cloud gaming proponents say they believe future consoles are likely to embrace the technology, rather than risk being replaced by it. “Anyone making consoles for the future would be crazy not to have cloud gaming support,” said David Perry, Gaikai’s C.E.O.

Support from game publishers can make or break OnLive and it isn’t clear how eager some of the more prominent ones are to join the service, which has a variety of payment plans for consumers, from a $10 monthly rental to an option for buying games for $2 to $50. The industry’s biggest blockbuster, the Call of Duty series from Activision Blizzard, isn’t available on the service, for example.

An executive of one publisher working with OnLive, Jason Kingsley, the chief executive of Rebellion, predicted that most game makers would warm to cloud gaming services over time.

“There will always be some people who say, ‘We don’t want to engage in this, it’s horrible,’ ” Mr. Kingsley said. “I can’t see why it shouldn’t be part of the mix.”

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Bits: Amazon Cloud Failure Takes Down Web Sites

A major, widespread failure in Amazon’s Web services business took down many Web sites Thursday.

The problems, which began early Thursday morning and had not been completely repaired by late afternoon, affected many Web sites including Quora, Reddit, GroupMe, Scvngr and HootSuite, which all posted messages to their visitors about the issue.

The Web companies use Amazon’s cloud-based Web services to host Web sites, applications, files and other resources. Amazon’s customers range from start-ups like Foursquare to big companies like Pfizer and Nasdaq.

Amazon lets these companies rent space on its servers and take advantage of its big data centers and computing power. But this means that when Amazon’s servers fail, the companies have little control over the situation, highlighting the risks of relying on so-called cloud computing.

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment, but the company is updating the status of its Web services and confirmed the service disruptions. It said it did not know when the services would be restored.

“Our high-level ballpark right now is that the E.T.A. is a few hours,” Amazon wrote at 2:09 p.m. Eastern time. “We can assure you that all hands are on deck to recover as quickly as possible. We will update the community as we have more information.”

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