Just like Chicken Little, people all across twitter today have been running around with the same question: “Is it just me or is Skype not working?”. Yes Virginia, the Skype has fallen.

A massive outage today has effectively brought the entire Skype network to its knees. Beyond this however is a series of amazing insights into exactly how broken the service is. For people like myself that now live and die by our ability to Skype people and who in fact have completely replaced their traditional phone service with Skype – this is a bit, shall we say, disconcerting.

Problem 1 – Let’s start with the close to 10-12 hours of non-communications from Skype itself. To be frank the first I noticed the system was down was around 10am EST as I had conference call meetings I needed to be in. I managed to get one phone call off and then – POOF! – it was gone. Down. For the first hour it was “eh, maybe its me” but after 2 hours and having not been able to attend my conference call ya start to wonder.

Problem 2 – Then it was off to the twitter feed. If something this persistent has crashed, twitter should know about it. And certainly by that point the twitter feed was already buzzing. Not that you would notice from the “Trending Topics” feeds. Despite a massive increase in tweets about Skype, apparently that wasn’t good enough to warrant a ‘heads up’ that something was wrong in the economy. Instead what we got was #2011predictions and a pile of other ‘sponsored’ items that really had no relevancy to what was going on in the world

If you consider that a large number of businesses run on Skype, to have a system like this go down during one of the busiest business and social periods of the year should have raised alarm bells. THAT is the type of thing that people need to see as a trending topic. Makes you wonder what would happen in the case of a natural disaster or other crisis where people need to get information which is critical to their work and family rather than their social playtime.

Problem 3 – The heartbeat monitor that Skype uses to communicate the status of its network was saying consistently through this time period that “hey – no problem – everything is fine” and in fact still says that there is nothing wrong with the system at this time despite the fact that people around the world still can’t connect to friends and businesses.

Problem 4 – Finally around 10:50-ish EST this evening – the masters of understatement finally perk up.

Earlier today, we noticed that the number of people online on Skype was falling, which wasn’t typical or expected, so we began to investigate.

Skype isn’t a network like a conventional phone or IM network – instead, it relies on millions of individual connections between computers and phones to keep things up and running. Some of these computers are what we call ‘supernodes’ – they act a bit like phone directories for Skype. If you want to talk to someone, and your Skype app can’t find them immediately (for example, because they’re connecting from a different location or from a different device) your computer or phone will first try to find a supernode to figure out how to reach them.

Under normal circumstances, there are a large number of supernodes available. Unfortunately, today, many of them were taken offline by a problem affecting some versions of Skype. As Skype relies on being able to maintain contact with supernodes, it may appear offline for some of you.

If this was Bell, Sprint, Telus, AT&T, COX or any other communications company information would have been available within a “reasonable” time frame after the system went down. Instead – what we get from Skype is that the situation “wasn’t typical”. I mean really – who do these people think they are George Bush?

All the belly aching aside, it is really amazing how something as innocent as voice over IP has crept into the everyday of society and some of the problems that we may need to put up with as the technology advances. This software bug essentially has caused untold millions of dollars of lost productivity and has shown that our alternative means of addressing the situation are not as up to the task that we thought they were.  

More so than this it will be interesting to see what churn rates might be the fallout of this incident. I’m sure there are numerous calls into the traditional phone companies now by people that have been shaken in their belief that VOIP is the way to go. Personally I’m not phoning Bell Canada to ask for a SOHO line into the house here preferring to rely on Skype even though I still can’t get a Canadian Skype-In number.  I mean, let’s be honest here – the value proposition of Skype still outperforms anything else available in the marketplace today. And it’s not as if Roger’s VOIP service has had a better track record with at least three major internet outages in the past year (oh look – its raining, hey! Where’d my internet go????).

Tomorrow is another day – with luck Skype will be back up and all will be right with the world again. Just not quite as bright as it was yesterday.

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