For 6 days, 3 hours, and 38 minutes in late March, the Golden-class container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez canal, leaving more than 400 vessels piled up on either end of the canal as they waited for the stranded container ship to be refloated. While media coverage of the incident has focused on potential shortages of goods like petroleum, food, and bathroom tissue, little attention was paid to the potential for worldwide data shortages as a result of the reduction in shipping capacity.
Most readers are likely familiar with the data storage facilities of Docker containers, but a smaller number may have considered the data storage and transmission features of physical shipping containers. Conservative estimates suggest that a single intermodal container could hold roughly 60 Petabytes of data (assuming use of 2 TB, 2.5-inch hard drives and adequate padding). Traveling at an average speed of 24 knots, container ships average 30 days from Hong Kong to Rotterdam, the Netherlands (the Ever Given’s final destination). Thus, if the ship were carrying a single such “data container,” and experienced no delays, it would have a rough throughput of 23 GB/second. The owners of the stranded container ship did not release a cargo manifest, but it is known that the ship can carry 18,300 standard shipping containers. Assuming a mere 0.1% of these contained data, the bandwidth would increase to roughly 420 GB/sec.
While such bandwidth numbers are truly staggering, one must also take into account latency, or the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction for its transfer. Large container ships take up to three business days to load and unload, and latency increases with every hour the container sits in traffic on land, while being trucked from port to its final destination. Time spent unloading the truck and installing the hard drives also affects the latency of the data transmission.
In contrast, Unidata’s Internet Data Delivery (IDD) system takes advantage of the ultra-reliable and very low latency Internet2 system where possible, along with high-speed public internet channels for interoperability with universities not connected to I2. Routing issues faced by computers running the Local Data Manager (LDM) software are resolved almost instantaneously by the network, and never involve waiting for physical objects weighing over 200,000 tonnes to be shifted by tugboats. Resolution of internet routing problems does not depend on tides or phases of the moon.
For those worried about the possibility of a similar physical blockage affecting the transmission of geoscience data they depend on, please rest assured that Unidata is taking every reasonable precaution. While our Data Hallway is only six feet wide — less than three percent of the width of the Suez canal, and thus an unlikely candidate for a container ship accident — UCAR rules set to take effect on April Fool's Day, 2021 prohibit ships of any size inside the Unidata Program Center.