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Why the BBC website went offline

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Helen Purves Helen Purves | 14:19 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Last night, the BBC website went offline for about an hour - not something that happens very often. In fact, it was considered so unusual that for a while it was one of the most discussed topics on Twitter, with #bbcblackout becoming a top trending topic.

However, many of the explanations of what happened are hard to understand.  Controller of Digital Distribution Richard Cooper pointed to "multiple failures", citing failure in "aggregation of network traffic from the BBC's hosting centres to the internet" amongst other things. The editor of the BBC News website, Steve Herrmann, simplified it further, saying that "routers" failed, as did the backup system - but what does this mean in layman's terms?

Simply put, websites consist of large amount of data - text, images, videos etc - which live on servers.  These are storage devices much like those found inside your computer, but many times larger.

When you type a web address into your browser, you are essentially giving it directions on how to find the server the website lives on. In turn, the website sends out directions on where your browser should look.  In fact, the BBC website is so big that it is divided between quite a few servers - but in this case that's not where things went wrong.

What happened is that the technology that helps with the directions to the servers failed, as did all the technology that's in place as a back up measure.  So for just under an hour, the BBC website appeared to have vanished - your browser couldn't find it, and in turn it couldn't send directions to your browser on how to find it.  It wasn't that the website had gone or been deleted - just that the connection wasn't working.

It's a bit like when you unplug your personal broadband router: not only can you not connect to the internet, but the internet can't connect to you.  That doesn't mean your computer doesn't work on its own, or that all your data is lost, or that you’ll never be able to view your favourite websites again.

Of course, all technology breaks every now and then.  Fortunately the BBC website is so large that it has dedicated teams working to keep it running 24/7 who managed to get most of bbc.co.uk back on its feet in under an hour.

For more simple information on how the web works, you might like to read our article about it.

Also, for more information about this story there's a useful article from BBC News Technology.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good job with this explanation and note that bbcblackout was a trending topic. When the BBC site goes down people think the worst and check for a National Emergency which in truth is a compliment to the Beeb.


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