Terrorist Attacks Result in Web News Gridlock as Servers Struggle to Support Increased Volume

By Pamela Parker (Send Email)
Posted Sep 12, 2001


The major news Web sites like MSNBC.com, CNN.com, and CBSNews.com may have began their coverage of Tuesday''s tragedy by offering the big graphics, live audio, and video that accompany landmark events, but as people flocked to the Web to get the latest information, the heavy traffic volume rapidly resulted in server gridlock, and staffers rushed to distribute server loads and put up text-only sites, in an effort to make information as accessible as possible.

Initially, Internet users across the country reported being unable to access national news sites as they frantically sought information about the situation, receiving 500-13 error codes -- "HTTP Error 500-13 - Server too busy" -- or 404 error codes -- "Cannot find server or DNS Error." The major news Web sites like MSNBC.com, CNN.com, and CBSNews.com may have began their coverage of Tuesday's tragedy by offering the big graphics, live audio, and video that accompany landmark events, but as people flocked to the Web to get the latest information, the heavy traffic volume rapidly resulted in server gridlock, and staffers rushed to distribute server loads and put up text-only sites, in an effort to make information as accessible as possible.

Ottawa, Ont.-based online measurement firm webHancer, said its analysis confirmed that the problems were due to too many users attempting to view the sites at once.

Like Jupiter Media Metrix and Nielsen//Netratings, webHancer measures Internet activity using a 14 million-person panel that it says is scientifically representative of actual Web-wide activity, and it reported surging traffic levels at the major news sites.

According to its figures, MSNBC.com saw a staggering increase in users between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. webHancer''s panel, which normally registers a few hundred users on the site at any given moment, spiked to a level of 11,000 page requests shortly after the initial attack on the World Trade Center; then to 22,000 page requests, according to webHancer spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

Similarly, CNN.com also experienced similar behavior, seeing a thousand-fold increase in page requests by noontime, according to the firm''s representative panel.

That increasing traffic evidently took a serious toll on the sites. Shortly after 9 a.m., the firm reported that median page load time on MSNBC.com spiked from three seconds to 27 seconds. This a greater time frame than most browsers will tolerate without timing out.

Atlanta-based CNN.com, likewise, saw an increase from a median nine-second page load time to more than 30 seconds.

"Our administrators are aware of it," said a spokesman at CNN.com on Tuesday morning. "They''re trying to balance it out, but it''s being hit drastically. They''re trying to ... put some more space into it. It''s probably going to be that way for the rest of the day -- very off and on until they can get more space added."

The morning rush to the Web affected other national news sites, like CBSNews.com and FoxNews.com, as well as several sites for terrestrial televisions stations and radio stations. Newspaper Web sites, such as that of the New York Times and the site for the Washington Post, were faring somewhat better, albeit operating much more slowly than usual.

"We''re seeing it across everyone," said webHancer''s MacDougall. "It''s been much the same story on all the major news sites. The numbers that we''re seeing, that are reflected in our reports ... are no doubt reflected on their sites. Their traffic increased ... by the order of hundreds and hundreds of people."

By 11 a.m. EST, MSNBC.com had adopted what spokespeople described as a "light site," stripped of almost all graphics and ads, in an effort to cope with the traffic overload.

"We''re operating at almost a text-only mode," said MSNBC.com spokesman Peter Dorogoff. "That''s allowing us to handle the load at the moment. We''re just promoting bare bones, stripped down news reporting. By all indications by our tech people, the site is currently getting slammed by users, but we seem to be handling the load."

Dorogoff said that in cases like this, the site did not consider advertising and design issues a priority. "We''re just not kind of looking at that, editorially speaking. That''s why our resources are going right now in getting information out to the public."

He added that the "light site" layout is part of a standard contingency plan for breaking news days, "though certainly this is extraordinary, above and beyond."

webHancer confirmed that the site was able to reduce load times using the strategy. According to its numbers, MSNBC.com''s median load time gradually improved during the next two hours, ultimately reaching six seconds around noon.

CNN.com adopted the same strategy after initial troubles, putting up a simple text Web site -- just a white background and black text.

Other news organizations trying to disseminate information via the Internet turned to e-mail, which seemed to be functioning normally. The New York Times'' site sent out e-mail alerts to subscribers to its "direct" service, updating them with developments and linking to its site.

"In response to the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., NYTimes.com will be sending frequent digests of the latest developments," read one missive.

Outside of the New York City and Washington D.C. areas, the situation was somewhat better, as newspapers'' Web sites -- like the Houston Chronicle''s Chron.com and the Los Angeles Times'' LATimes.com -- were up, albeit running more slowly than usual.

Those seeking information over the Internet ended up communicating with friends, family, and colleagues via e-mail and instant messenger applications. Others sent out updates and discussed the disaster via e-mail discussion lists, and even wireless discussion groups.

These aspects of the Internet appear to have worked as usual, becoming a major source of communication, as well as a conduit of information, hope, and support in the wake of the tragedy.

"I can''t get through on the phone lines. Are you ok?" was the message that landed in thousands of e-mail boxes in the New York City area, as the old, reliable "killer app" became a vital link between people and their loved ones.


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