AOL users lose their buddies temporarily

Millions of America Online Inc. and AOL Instant Messenger users were knocked off the popular instant messaging service on Thursday afternoon for at least 2 hours, with intermittent service after that.

AOL blames a “regional power failure” for the outage, confirmed by Dominion Virginia Power, which acknowledges a “major blip” in service to its customer America Online. The power outage lasted 2 minutes, according to Rick McDonald, operations manager for Dominion Virginia Power, and also affected 29,670 of its other customers.

“There was a major regional power failure in Northern Virginia” on Thursday, says Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesperson.

It was the second such outage this week. Service was interrupted on Tuesday for a few minutes by what AOL would describe only as an equipment glitch.

Thursday’s outage affected America Online’s 28 million members, as well as nonmembers who use the free AOL Instant Messaging software and network.

The outage may be the service’s largest in the time since instant messaging came to be adopted by tens of millions of Internet users, according to Peter Christy, an analyst with Jupiter Research. And it underscores the very complicated nature of an instant messaging computer system.

“It’s like anything you take for granted,” Christy says. “Until it’s gone you don’t realize how much you miss it.”

AOL restored the Instant Messaging service within an hour, but a user who’s so-called Buddy Lists are stored on AOL’s servers lost access to their lists. About 2 hours later, some could again swap messages, but not all lists were accessible. In some cases, user configurations were altered and some buddies were “blocked” as a result-but users could not change the configurations.

Less effect on AOL

For a brief period, AOL members couldn’t access their e-mail. They had no problems logging on to the AOL network, surfing the Internet, or using chat rooms.

AOL says service was restored promptly after the outage occurred just after 3 p.m. Eastern Time. But even while AOL was making that statement, many users were reporting that they still couldn’t use AIM.

Because some parts of the service remained available on Thursday while users experienced Buddy List difficulties, the problem may have involved internal network issues, suggests John Deep, a spokesperson for Aimster, a file-sharing piggyback application for AIM.

“If you can log on but can’t get your Buddy List, that means some of their servers are working and others aren’t,” Deep says.

That even a short outage was so quickly noticed by many users speaks to the depth of the service’s market penetration. AOL claims its 25 million instant messaging users send 656 million messages daily, and has said its Buddy List network hosts more than 2.4 million simultaneous users at peak times. AOL has had a nearly insurmountable lead for years over rivals Microsoft, AT&T, and Yahoo.

The outage could leave a bad taste in users’ mouths, notes analyst Christy. “It just takes one bad meal at your favorite restaurant and you start looking for a better one,” he says.

Microsoft claims its rival MSN Messenger service has caught up to AOL in worldwide instant messaging subscribers with 29.5 million unique users, according to a February study by Media Metrix. A Microsoft representative was unsure if the service had seen an increase in subscriptions in recent days related to AOL’s series of outages.

Service glitches multiply

An AOL spokesperson declined to say how many accounts had been affected by Tuesday’s outage, declining also to elaborate on the problem beyond describing it as an “equipment glitch.”

A switch failure on March 27 also brought down AOL Instant Messenger for a short while. An AOL representative said that Tuesday’s outage was not related to what happened in March, when AIM users with older versions of the free software continued to have problems for days afterward.

A company source speculated on Tuesday that unusual solar flare activity could have caused that day’s disruption. On Monday scientists recorded intense activity in the sun’s 11-year solar flare cycle, and said the flares might affect radio transmitters and, in rare cases, ground equipment.

Two major flares occurred Tuesday, confirm scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Environment Center, which forecasts solar weather. But any AIM problems that day were likely related to larger telecommunications problems rather than solar flares, says Barbara McGehan, a public affairs officer at NOAA.

George A. Chidi Jr. of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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