Solar Flares Can Cause of Network Hardware Failures

Did you have any Network Hardware Failures on the night of August 3 2010? If so, the root cause may possibly have been due to a solar storm that directly hit Earth as reported widely on the news.

NASA astronomers reported that on August 1, there was a sizable eruption on the sun that ejected positively charged plasma from it’s surface headed directly towards Earth. These charged particles entered the Earth’s atmosphere a few days later and collided with oxygen and nitrogen molecules creating what is known as cosmic radiation.

Typically, the atmosphere of the Earth does a good job of deflecting cosmic radiation on the upper part of the atmosphere. That is why the discussion of electronics failures due to solar flares or cosmic radiation is often limited to satellites in orbit. Satellites are much more likely to be hit with the radiation because they are higher up in the atmosphere.

When solar flares are larger than normal however, cosmic radiation can hit the Earth’s surface. Typically, the closer the equipment are to the North and South poles, the more prone they are to being hit with radiation.

I was working for a firm in Chicago a few years ago when we had two Cisco Supervisor modules on separate Catalyst 6500 series switches die in the same night. The hardware was located in two different locations with completely different power sources. Knowing the failure rate of this equipment, having two failures in one night is very rare. After a lengthy investigation by the Cisco technical assistance team, it was determined that the failures were due to a similar solar flare that hit our site with cosmic radiation. At the time, I didn’t believe their explanation, but looking back on it now, it is possible. In fact, Cisco has cosmic radiation documented as one of the causes of hardware failures. Network equipment such as high end switches are more prone to cosmic radiation compared to other electronics equipment because of the sensitive electronics required to move packets at such a high rate of speed.

So the next time you see news reports for solar flares heading towards Earth, keep a close eye on any hardware problems you experience on your network gear.