Internet fails to provide information at its most crucial time

by Jason SalasTuesday, September 11, 2001

Web bandwidth stretched too far, sites got too crowded...major news providers forced to improvise


What will undoubtedly become known as one of the darkest points in U.S. history may likewise be referred to as one of the darkest point in the history of the Internet. Arguably the single most significant period for the Web occurred today when the World Wide Web was called upon en masse for timely information, in the first few critical minutes following the horrific act of terrorism in New York City.

And because of the tens of millions of users logging on from all over the planet – the Internet couldn’t handle the pressure, and most sites were rendered unreachable.

KUAM was the first to break local coverage of the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center that has both horrified and shocked our nation early this morning on-air and online. When we got the word about exactly what happened, we immediately scrambled our newsteam – reporters, producers, photographers, and Web developers. Naturally, to find out what happened and where we were with the issue, we looked to the ‘Net. For the first time in my many years of being a ‘Netizen – the Web was virtually inaccessible.

I theorized that the problem was traffic-based, and could have stemmed from any number of sources:

  • Our Internet service provider(s)
  • The host Web sites themselves, being overloaded with inbound traffic and page requests
  • The Internet infrastructure itself, simply having too little bandwidth to accommodate the mammoth amount of traffic generated by the world

The second assumption was largely more accurate, as the sheer volume of the assumedly tens of thousands of people per minute hitting a site was simply too much for sites too handle. The third assumption (to a minor degree impacted the traffic, as well), as the north tower of the WTC housed thousands of phone lines and backbone connections supporting the major network news sites, stunting their capacity.


The networks address the issue of high-traffic
All leading Web site managers will plan for a worst-case scenario when conducting their capacity planning. The more astute ones will take this a step further and project what would happen if a site was pushed beyond its normal ability to provide service in a timely manner (on the Web, meaning serving up a page within a few seconds). This demand planning is increased by an exponential factor for news-oriented Web sites, due to the nature of their product. It became apparent in the first 45 minutes after the incident took place that sites were pushed excessively beyond their means.

CNN.com addressed the issue of traffic overload in debatably the best manner. In a different, and perhaps more intelligible fashion, the site scrapped its traditional columnar, info-heavy page homepage layout in favor of a scaled-down text-only version, in order to load quicker and impose less strain on its network servers (avoiding the complexities of a database call). But perhaps due to the size and scope of CNN, being a global news presence, had the slowest performance of the majors.

ABCNews.com adopted a similar strategy as CNN, after being largely inaccessible in the hours following the initial ordeal.

MSNBC.com maintained its traditional layout, although the huge swells of page requests to its own site caused frequent timeouts, “Page Not Found” errors, and errors indicating that too many people had access the site’s data store simultaneously (although arguably it had better performance than most of the other majors). It was either on, or off....and in the latter case, refreshing the page normally got you in...but at a snail’s pace.

What’s important to realize is that these are major sites with heavy-duty architecture supporting them on the back-end. They are constructed to be bandwidth-intensive, using advanced clustering, Web server farms, and redundancy schema that are intended to take on extremely high levels of page requests, most being able to facilitate as many as several tens of thousands of users accessing the same resource.

Today’s traffic exceeded most projections by far.


Major sites use alter-egos to fend off traffic swells
In lieu of being able to access content inherently from the networks, many of the majors announced that their articles and exhibits could be accessed through alternative sites...such as NewsHub.com and Poynter.org. KUAM.COM’s inbound traffic levels also took a significant spike in the first 4 hours, being the only Guam news site with locally-produced content.

Many of the majors also added more servers and capacity to their networks, and as the situation became more globally-known, the traffic started to subside and become more workable. Networks strained and scrambled their research teams on terrorism to provide image galleries, streaming coverage, timelines, historical profiles, city information, and discussion forums, message boards, and chatrooms.

A problem noted by many sites using discussion forums was the excessive and expected outcry by the online community, many of which included intense racial slurs directed at largely Middle Eastern ethnicities, with common cries encouraging violence in the most extreme measures.


Not just IP traffic....
We even received several e-mails throughout the night as an affiliate from the networks, some of which saying, “We’re being hammered by users coming to the page...if you can't get through the first time, keep trying.” E-mail globally was largely unaffected by the traffic swell.

Verizon reported that cellular/mobile phone usage doubled the normal capacity, causing much network congestion...and incomplete calls for terrified citizens and family members.

Needless to say...the traffic on the Internet will return to normal in a few weeks, if not days, and everything will go revert to some state of normalcy, and carry on. This is sadly the least common denominator between technology and human emotion – being a far cry from the healing that will have to start as a nation mourns devastating tragedy.

"We’re being hammered by users coming to the page...if you can't get through the first time, keep trying."
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