Amazon Web Services outage causes widespread internet problems

Last Updated Feb 28, 2017 6:03 PM EST

NEW YORK -- Amazon’s cloud-computing service, Amazon Web Services, experienced an outage in its eastern U.S. region Tuesday afternoon, causing unprecedented and widespread problems for thousands of websites and apps.

Amazon is the largest provider of cloud computing services in the U.S. Beginning around midday Tuesday on the East Coast, one region of its “S3” service based in Virginia began to experience what Amazon, on its service site, called “increased error rates.”

In a statement, Amazon said as of 4 p.m. E.T. it was still experiencing “high error rates” that were “impacting various AWS services.”

“We are working hard at repairing S3, believe we understand root cause, and are working on implementing what we believe will remediate the issue,” the company said.

But less than an hour later, an update offered good news: “As of 1:49 PM PST, we are fully recovered for operations for adding new objects in S3, which was our last operation showing a high error rate. The Amazon S3 service is operating normally,” the company said.

Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, or S3, stores files and data for companies on remote servers. It’s used for everything from building websites and apps to storing images, customer data and customer transactions.

“Anything you can think about storing in the most cost-effective way possible,” is how Rich Mogull, CEO of data security firm Securosis, puts it.

Amazon has a strong track record of stability with its cloud computing service, CNET senior editor Dan Ackerman told CBS News. 

“AWS... is known for having really good ‘up time,’” he said, using industry language.

Over time, cloud computing has become a major part of Amazon’s empire. 

“Very few people host their own web servers anymore, it’s all been outsourced to these big providers, and Amazon is one of the major ones,” Ackerman said. 

The problem Tuesday affected both “front-end” operations -- meaning the websites and apps that users see -- and back-end data processing that takes place out of sight. Some smaller online services, such as Trello, Scribd and IFTTT, appeared to be down for a while, although all have since recovered.

Some affected websites had fun with the crash, treating it like a snow day:

In a twist of irony, the website Down Detector, which tracks web outages across the internet, was itself crippled by the outage:

The corporate message service Slack stayed up, although it reported “degraded service” for some features. Users reported that file sharing in particular appeared to freeze up. Netflix also did not appear to be affected, CNET reports.

Major cloud-computing outages happen periodically. In 2015, Amazon’s DynamoDB service, a cloud-based database, had problems that affected companies like Netflix and Medium. But usually providers have workarounds that can get things working again quickly.

“What’s really surprising to me is that there’s no fallback -- usually there is some sort of backup plan to move data over, and it will be made available within a few minutes,” said Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.