Internet under attack

The Internet was given an important test Tuesday, and in many respects it failed.

How quickly did you try logging on to CNN.com, Yahoo News or any of the other news sites once you’d heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York? How quickly did you grimace in frustration after waiting for pages to load, only to start scouring the office for a radio or, better yet, a TV set?

Of course, no one was prepared, and the timing could not have been worse. The disaster began in the early moments of the business day, and as latecomers arrived at work the word of mouth sparked a level of curiosity that sent who knows how many people online. In the absence of any other media, the Web was all many organizations had.

Even on a good day, when the most pressing Internet use involves stock lookups or booking travel arrangements, customers don’t have a lot of patience. On Tuesday, any service problems or interruptions only heightened the fears of those searching for life-and-death information on family and friends travelling to the United States. It wasn’t just about the news sites, and American Airlines is not the only carrier whose site was sent into overdrive. We were struggling to get onto Air Canada to track down the flight number of a plane that was carrying one of our reporters into New York at 9:00 a.m., right around the time the second plane crashed into the building. Of course, many turned to the Web only after (or during) thwarted attempts to get through by telephone. Next time, they won’t bother.

In countless conference sessions on e-commerce, IT experts have lectured the industry about the importance of consistent online service and the need to establish the equivalent of the phone system’s 99.999 per cent reliability. Companies that fail to provide this, according to the dogma, will lose customers and almost never get them back.

In the case of news portals, CNN.com will likely emerge as the whipping-boy of choice, in large part because it belongs to an organization which built its reputation — and its ratings — with ongoing televised coverage of the Gulf War. This was obviously in the early days of the Internet, long before users would come to expect the same level of updated content, if they had a Web connection at all. The Gulf War also lacked the single, crystallizing moment of local violence that would immediately capture the interest of the worldwide news audience. That’s what made the Tuesday crisis such a learning experience.

For all the complaints, CNN.com’s reaction was surprisingly agile and appropriate. Within approximately an hour and a half the site was stripped to a single photo, one headline (“America Under Attack”) and a bullet-style list of links. The result was Spartan but effective, and with a three-fold increase in server capacity, those who gave the site a second chance may have managed to get some of the coverage they were looking for. If there was a choice of PC or TV, however, it didn’t take long to make a decision. That’s inevitable, given the visual nature of the situation. However this was one of the first times since the Internet became a mainstream communications tool that it had the potential to “keep up” with other broadcast media. It wasn’t fully up to the task.

As this situation progresses and –hopefully — some aspects of our lives return to normal, there will no doubt be a number of information outlets and corporations that will need to conduct a post-mortem on their new media capabilities. In the next issue of Communications and Networking we will explore what went wrong, and how some of these organizations will seek to better cope with such high levels of usage. Perhaps some of them had tried to anticipate the worst-case traffic scenario. If so, the bar has been raised much higher.

There is a difference between redialling a phone number and refreshing a browser. We feel, somehow, that with a phone line there is someone on the other end, dealing with the volume of calls. The facelessness of the Internet doesn’t offer that. There is also no real busy signal, only failed connections.

The prospects for our information age are founded upon our belief in the power of the Internet to improve communications. Good luck keeping the faith now.

sschick@plesman.com

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