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Being flooded by email...

September 2007

The main benefit of the internet is that it enables us to do business with people on the other side of the world as if they were next door, but it’s a double edged sword.  During July’s awful floods, for example, a good few businesses that were nowhere near the wet parts were badly hit.

I should explain.  Most people and companies store their websites in the computers of a “hosting” company.  That company promises to keep its computers permanently connected to the huge computer network called the Internet.  The hosting company can be anywhere in the world, it just doesn’t matter; for example, one website I run is stored in Utah, another in Essex.

What this means, of course, is that if the hosting company collapses, or disappears under water, it takes your website with it.  This happened to Stella and Rose’s books (; it is an excellent second hand book shop in Wales, who do about half their business online.  The shop was as dry as a bone during the floods, but their website vanished altogether for a couple of days because their website host – Fasthosts Ltd - is in Gloucester, and was badly affected for a while.

As it happens, it was not because Fasthosts was under water, although all their emergency generators and so forth had to jump into action, but because most of their staff could not get to work.  I think it is rather charming that, despite all the artificial intelligence and computing power available, it still takes a person to switch it all on.  However, I don’t suppose Stella and Rose’s Books saw the appeal, as their online income vanished for a while.

So, even if you are nowhere near a flood plain, it seems that you can suffer flooding by email, as it were. 

At least those effects will only be temporary.  Water damages computers permanently.  I am afraid that some unhappy small businesses will have discovered the hard way, as they watched their lap tops float off down the river, what a good idea it would have been to have a back up copy of everything.

One chap I know who runs his business almost entirely online from home in Reading had the misfortune to be flooded, and all his computer equipment was ruined.  Fortunately, he had recently invested a few hundred pounds in a system which keeps a full copy of everything at a distant location, so he was able to borrow a dry office, buy a new computer and was up and running as if nothing had happened in a few hours.  The poor chap’s house will take many months to put right, though.

Indeed, this is one advantage that computer systems have over paper based records – you can have as many copies as you like, stored all over the world, and so the effect of natural disasters can be minimised.  This protection is, incidentally, available to us all, and can be free; you can see my article on the subject at

On a larger scale, there is increasing concern in the industry about the sheer weight of traffic that uses computer hubs that are in risky areas.  Believe it or not, more internet traffic flows through London than any other city in the world, mostly through the London Internet Exchange (  And where are these vital machines that oil the internet wheels?  In docklands, right by the Thames, just waiting for the Thames flood barrier to fail.

There is no reason why they should not be relocated in a safer spot, but there seems to be little enthusiasm to do so.  I know what I would do if I were running it.  After thanking my lucky stars that I had not been flooded out this time, I would start looking for a nice hill to relocate to, preferably one that lends itself to being fortified.  A nice pre-internet Motte and Bailey castle would do nicely.