10:28am

Wed August 14, 2013
All Tech Considered

'The New York Times' Site, Apps Return After Two-Hour Outage

Originally published on Fri August 16, 2013 6:40 am

One of the world's most trusted sources for news is back up, after an internal outage knocked it out for nearly two hours on Wednesday morning. The New York Times' main site and mobile app went down a little after 11 a.m. ET, when users who tried to visit received a "Service Unavailable" message.

The news organization's Twitter account sent this message, before the site returned:

"As you are undoubtedly aware, we are experiencing a server issue that has resulted in our e-mail and Web site being unavailable. We believe the outage is the result of an internal issue, which we expect to be resolved soon. We will communicate further when we have more information."

The Times later said the outage occurred within seconds of a scheduled maintenance update, so they believe there was some kind of error connected to that maintenance that caused the outage. And it wasn't just the website — the Times email system also went down temporarily, forcing a handful of reporters to file their stories over the phone.

Security experts told us that while the Times has plenty of backup servers, and you can do a million things to guard against these technical outages, this can happen to any company. In the case of the Times, they've been extremely reliable. One of the only other notable cases of slowness or load issues was when the site was targeted by Chinese hackers last year.

Technical problems are especially frustrating on a busy news day. The outage happened against a backdrop of unrest in Egypt, so The Times used Facebook to publish dispatches and recommended following its correspondents on Twitter for updates.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The New York Times website shut down for about two hours today. The Times has been the target of hackers in the past, so today, there was speculation that perhaps this was the result of another security breach. But it turns out the problem started on the inside.

NPR's Laura Sydell joins me now to talk about what happened. And, Laura, what did The New York Times say about this outage?

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Well, according to The Times, the outage occurred within seconds of a scheduled maintenance update. So the site went down at about 11:10 Eastern Time, and they believe there was some kind of error connected to the maintenance that caused the outage. And it wasn't just the website. The Times' email system was down. There were few reporters who had to file their stories over the phone, and there were problems accessing New York Times apps. And inside the building, the employees couldn't reach the intranet.

SIEGEL: Has The Times given any more details about what actually might have gone wrong?

SYDELL: Not really. But I did talk to a few security experts, and among them was the chief technology officer at Rackspace, which is an online backup company. He said it looks like The Times has a lot of backup servers, but that isn't always enough to prevent this kind of problem. When you do maintenance, it's usually sent out to all the servers. So one mistake on what you program the computers to do, and boom, it can bring the entire system cascading down, or it just could have been somebody made a mistake and hit the wrong switch.

And technically, you know, this can happen at any company. So you can do a million things to guard against it, but accidents happen. And in the case of The Times, they've actually been extremely reliable. So I think that's part of what this made so surprising. One of the only other notable cases when The Times went down was when the site was the target of a cyber attack by Chinese hackers last year.

SIEGEL: When The Times' website went down, I was trying actually to access an archived story, and I couldn't understand what was going on, but I couldn't get to it. Any sense of how Times readers generally reacted to all this?

SYDELL: Well, it has nearly 29 million unique visitors a month to its site, so you can imagine it would cause some reaction. The Times was a trending topic on Twitter for a while, and there were actually some pretty funny tweets, Robert. Among my favorites: My print edition of The New York Times seems to be functionally - seems to be functioning normally.

(LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: The Times' opinion section got into the act, and they sent out a tweet that said: Readers, don't fret. If newyorktimes.com remains down, we are ready to tweet op-eds and editorials in 140-character increments.

(LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: So - but actually social media did become a sort of backup. The Times let me people know that they could still access articles and breaking news on Facebook pages. Ultimately, New York Times is going to work hard to make sure this doesn't happen again.

SIEGEL: I bet they do. Thank you, Laura.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Laura Sydell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.