Once in a while—not quite often enough to be a crisis, but just often enough to be a trope—people in the United States will freak out because a huge number of highly popular websites and services have suddenly gone down. For an interminable period of torture (usually about 1-3 hours, tops) there is no Instagram to browse, no Tinder to swipe, no Github to push to, no Netflix to And Chill.
When this happens, it usually means that Amazon Web Services is having a technical problem, most likely in their US-East region. What that actually means is that something is broken in northern Virginia. Of all the places where Amazon operates data centers, northern Virginia is one of the most significant, in part because it’s where AWS first set up shop in 2006. It seemed appropriate that this vision quest to see The Cloud across America which began at the ostensible birthplace of the Internet should end at the place that’s often to blame when large parts of the U.S. Internet dies.
Northern Virginia is a pretty convenient place to start a cloud-services business: for reasons we’ll get into later, it’s a central region for Internet backbone. For the notoriously economical and utilitarian Amazon, this meant that it could quickly set up shop with minimal overhead in the area, leasing or buying older data centers rather than building new ones from scratch.
The ease with which AWS was able to get off the ground by leasing colocation space in northern Virginia in 2006 is the same reason that US-East is the most fragile molecule of the AWS cloud: it’s old, and it’s running on old equipment in old buildings.