Cows have been causing brief outages in Google's data network

Grazing cows stepping on fiber cables are enough to cause short outages for the trillion-dollar company.

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We've all heard of debugging software, but Google recently had to de-cow the network that delivers its services across the world.

According to a series of tweets from Urs Hölzle, Google's senior vice president of technical infrastructure, the company was noticing "frequent short outages on a fiber path through Oregon." Google operates a data center there that hosts several of its services including Gmail and Drive. The reason for the outages relates to how fiber optic cables from the center are strung along power lines in the air rather than buried underground.

Google, meet cow — Sometimes these aerial cables can cause problems when storms and trees damage them. They also fall to the ground occasionally but can still function just fine. Except, as Google learned, when a grazing cow steps on the line. Bending the fiber cable is apparently enough to briefly stop data from passing through, meaning something as simple as a hungry cow had the power to cripple a trillion-dollar goliath.

The company didn't realize what was causing the issue until it sent someone out to investigate.

Out of sight, out of mind — The digital services we rely on often feel as ubiquitous as the air we breathe because the infrastructure just sits quietly in the background, away from sight. But this is a good reminder that there's a ton of physical infrastructure carrying all of our data around the world. Whenever you send an email to a friend on another continent, cables under the sea ferry that the data thousands of miles across. And that comes with its own unique set of challenges. Google has previously had to fend off sharks biting its undersea cables, for instance.

Google has 13 data centers in the United States alone, and 8 more spread across the rest of the world. Storing data close to customers can help reduce load times and high-capacity fiber optic cables reduce congestion of data passing between centers.

Google recently turned on a new high-speed subsea cable stretching from California to Taiwan that it built in partnership with Facebook. Another new cable, called 2Africa, is being built that will significantly increase load times for internet service in Africa by extending 16 new connections to the continent that can transmit up to 180 terabits per second.