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Ghosts in the Machine

This is absolutely fascinating. Thanks to FC Now reader Gemma Teed! In the Independent, Andrew Orlowski reports that the Internet, the foundation on which much of today’s business is done, could collapse sooner than expected because of background noise caused by inactive, out-of-use computers.

This is absolutely fascinating. Thanks to FC Now reader Gemma Teed! In the Independent, Andrew Orlowski reports that the Internet, the foundation on which much of today’s business is done, could collapse sooner than expected because of background noise caused by inactive, out-of-use computers.

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Huh? Turns out that when businesses and organizations stop using computer systems and networks, even if they don’t remain connected to the Net, they cause background radiation because other machines are trying to find them — and, if they’re plugged in, they continue to send periodic, feeble queries because old habits die hard.

The radiation is there even if no computers are active. It’s the price of being attached to the internet. Simply maintaining a network of 64,000 inactive, unplugged computers costs a provider around $1,300 a month at current US wholesale bandwidth prices. And if those computers are turned on, then the amount of static, and the cost, trebles to around $4,000. And that’s before a single user has typed in a web address, or performed any other activity.

Robin Bandy, a system administrator for a Californian ISP, provided a rare insight into zombie activity by charting what happened to a computer that was reachable, but dead, over eight months. Although the machine was turned off, the unique number was still receiving chatter that passed through Bandy’s Cliq network.

The end-point received an average of 20 bits of traffic a second, rising to 60 bits a second when the machine was turned on and responded to the incoming chatter. That doesn’t sound like much compared with the floods of junk e-mail we receive: 60 bits, seven and a half bytes, barely enough to represent the word “zombie”. As users, we hardly notice it. Today’s dial-up modems typically send and receive around 800 times as much per second, so the radiation isn’t going to choke your home computer. But for an ISP, it’s significant – and, as the figures above show, expensive.

Our old machines are talking to us. And to each other. At great expense. So just as it’s important to consider the costs of abandoned electronics and computer gear, we should keep in mind the costs of not cleaning up the cookie crumbs our machines leave on the floor of the Net when we shut off the lights and close the door on a retired box.

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