29 August 2011

Is the Internet an Unreliable Repository?

Several times this month I have come across websites that were temporarily down. In at least three of those I was trying to learn more about genealogy. The GenealogyGuys.com, BillionGraves.com, and Baltimore County Public Library websites were all down for different reasons at different times. The last website mentioned is down at the time I'm writing this post due to power failure during hurricane Irene.

So is it time to give up on Internet research and go back to the caveman days of visiting these places in person? No. That will not work. These websites are compilations of data not easily accessible in any one physical place. As far as I know, the Genealogy Guys do not have their own public library of knowledge at any physical address which I can visit. BillionGraves is a compilation of the collection efforts of thousands of volunteers visiting cemeteries world-wide. The Baltimore County Public Library has a ProQuest portal which my library card gives me free access to. There I can get more digitized issues of the Baltimore Sun for free than I can anywhere else... okay there is an "easy" fix for that one. I could go to the Maryland Law Library in Annapolis to look at the microfilms of the paper. That is what I did before ProQuest. My point is that the Internet provides resources that not only make access easier, but provide access to data in ways that make the old way almost obsolete.

With the prevelence of researcher dependence upon the Internet along with a higher demand for records access, is it really acceptable for a website to go down for a few hours? I do not think it is. Granted, there may always be more disasters (natural or otherwise), but there are some good ways to at least alleviate the hosting problem. First, we must determine what the problem is. In the cases I am aware of the root problem was a power outage or a hosting service failure. In our day of cloud computing, with scalable hosting services, websites can maintain an online presence on servers in multiple locations. That way if one host has a server go down for any reason--including power outage--another server can pick up the slack. Then there is a question of cost effectiveness. Perhaps is should be the responsibility of cloud providers to offer back-up hosting at a price within reach of small businesses, two man teams, and public libraries. Maybe the Congress should make legislation requiring websites to have at least one back up server online which traffic would automatically be directed to in case of an outage. Some of these thoughts may seem a little extravagant, but after all we are in an age of convenience.

At least I can still go to the Facebook page for each website and ask if anyone else noticed the website failure. I did that in all three cases unless it was already explained on the Facebook page. That is a nice way to keep informed of the issues, assuming Facebook isn't down.

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