Nation hungry for news takes Web sites to limit

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Last week’s terrorist attacks illustrated not only Americans’ reliance on the Internet but also the shortcomings of the communication medium. While most news sites registered record usage on the day of the attacks, many were also jammed initially, causing sluggish load times or error messages.
Popular news sites CNN.com and MSNBC.com saw record traffic figures on Sept. 11 and had to scale back and streamline the sites to accommodate the additional visitors. CNN.com counted about 9 million page views per hour on Sept. 11, compared with 14 million per day on a typical day. About 25 million unique users visited the site, 10 times the average daily amount, said CNN spokeswoman Edna Johnson.
In the early going, some users were met with a site that timed out or failed to load. As a result, CNN.com increased its server capacity threefold and trimmed the site so that it contained only the essential news and information and eliminated advertisements and links to nonattack-related stories. Traffic picked up, and the site generated 162.4 million page views for the day, its highest usage total until the next day, Sept. 12, when the site processed more than 300 million page views, thanks to the previous day’s site makeover. The previous best had been Nov. 8, 2000, the day after the presidential election, when the site recorded 156.7 million page views.
“I think [on Sept. 11] there was a sense of utter astonishment about what had happened and [on Sept. 12] the gravity of the attacks [were] beginning to settle in and people [were] hungry for information,” said Mitch Gelman, executive producer of CNN.com. For instance, CNN’s online poll that asked users if they feared for their own safety had attracted three times the participation of a standard popular poll by late afternoon on Sept. 12.
MSNBC.com reported cumulative traffic for the day of the attacks at 12.5 million unique users, more than four times the normal capacity-and more than double the 6.5 million unique users it attracted on its previous high of Nov. 8, 2000. In the case of the election, MSNBC.com had time to prepare for the onslaught of visitors. Following the attacks, the site experienced early sluggishness and had to quickly strip down its graphics and interactive elements, offering a bare-bones site with primarily text reporting, said Peter Dorogoff, director of communications for MSNBC.com.
The site also diverted some of its traffic to servers from Digital Island and Akamai, which provide Internet infrastructure services. “It was sluggish at times. Not everyone was able to get on at any one time, but for the most part it handled the load efficiently,” Mr. Dorogoff said.
In fact, at 2 p.m. (ET) Sept. 11, Digital Island served 55,000 simultaneous streams for the site, a record number of streams at one time from any one site handled by Digital Island, said the infrastructure company’s spokesman David Radoff. For the day, MSNBC.com served more than 12 million streams, Mr. Dorogoff said.
Local television stations also reported heavy volume. Denver’s NBC affiliate, KUSA-TV, sustained more than 2 million page views on 9news.com, more than 10 times the average, said Tim Dietz, director of interactive services for the station. “We turned our background to black and white and stripped some graphics,” he said. The site also cranked up the available bandwidth from an average of 2 or 3 Mbps to up to 30 Mbps, he said.
The site had no problems handling the additional load, he said.
WashingtonPost.com said Sept. 11 was its heaviest traffic day ever, with at least 25 million page views, five times its daily average. The tally could grow to 50 million for the day once the final figures are processed, said Don Marshall, spokesman for the Web site. WashingtonPost.com also streamlined its content and was accessible about 93 percent of the time, he said.
For news sites, Sept. 11 was probably the biggest day ever, said Rob Rosenthal, a research analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass. “Anything remotely resembling a news site was completely jammed,” he said.
Internet service providers reported usage increases as well, not only from traffic to popular news sites but also from additional e-mail volume as family and friends sought to determine each others’ whereabouts. ISP Verio saw sustained traffic across its networks at volumes 20 percent to 25 percent greater than normal, said Stan Barber, VP technology services operations for Verio in Denver, which provides Web hosting and Internet access.
Error messages, timeouts and lethargic Web sites are really no different than problems encountered by other communications infrastructures that are pushed to the max, he said. “It’s the same problem the telephone company had during the disaster. If you use something beyond what it is designed to handle, you are going to get a busy signal,” he said.
The capacity problems and crash diets of many sites underscore the need for quick contingency plans for sites that attract a lot of visitors during times of stress, Mr. Barber said.