US ATTACK: News sites simplified

Some major media organizations simplified their Web sites today in order to reduce bandwidth needs and lighten their server workloads, after many of the sites were overloaded by the crush of traffic from Internet users seeking updates on the apparent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

CNN.com, ABCNews.com and the Web sites of the The New York Times and other major news organizations were bombarded with user requests this morning, causing them to buckle under the strain, according to Keynote Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif.-based company that measures Web site performance.

Keynote spokeswoman Mary Lindsay said that while the Internet's backbone as a whole wasn't adversely affected by the extra Web traffic, the top news sites had trouble keeping up with the demand for information about the attacks.

For example, the availability of the CNN.com site to users was down to zero by 9 a.m. EDT based on Keynote's measurements, Lindsay said. She added that the New York Times site was also measured at zero availability at that hour, down from 99 percent to 100 percent availability before the first of two airplanes crashed into the now-collapsed towers of New York's World Trade Center.

Similarly, ABCNews.com was measured at zero availability at 9 a.m. EDT and recovered to only 5 percent availability by 11 a.m., Lindsay said. Meanwhile, the MSNBC.com site was down to 22 percent availability by 9 a.m. EDT, and USAToday.com dropped to 18.2 percent availability just after the attacks began, according to Keynote's measurements.

"I don't think we have ever seen the news sites hit so dramatically like this before [by Internet users]," Lindsay said. "There's something to be said for load-testing your site to be prepared for this kind of thing. These are news sites. They're set up to be accessed during disasters, or they should be, shouldn't they?"

Elizabeth Barry, a spokeswoman for Cable News Network LP in Atlanta, said the CNN Web site never went down and was always making content available. She added that CNN tripled its Web server capacity after the attacks and took down its regular site, choosing instead to post information about the attack only under the tagline "America Under Attack."

Lindsay said CNN's normal Web page contains about 255KB of data, but Keynote measured the amount of information on the simplified and slimmed-down pages at only about 20KB.

According to Mitch Gellman, the Web site's executive producer, traffic on CNN.com soared just 10 minutes after the first of two jetliners hit the World Trade Center towers. Gellman said CNN has received calls from people as far-flung as Italy and Minnesota, offering free bandwidth to keep the site up and running. But he added that CNN and its various online affiliates have sufficient capacity to handle the enormous load of incoming traffic.

Other news organizations, including ABCNews.com and CBSNews.com, also simplified their Web sites earlier today, at least temporarily.

Meanwhile, many government Web sites, including the one run by Congress, continued to serve pages and documents today despite the decision to close the offices of agencies in Washington and elsewhere. Calls to many federal IT offices went unanswered, but it appeared that critical systems remained up.

For example, the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., was "keeping enough people here so that our systems stay up," said Bob Schmitz, acting deputy director of the office of information resources. But the decision to stay was entirely voluntary, he added: If an employee wanted to go home, he could.

Computerworld staffers Linda Rosencrance and Patrick Thibodeau contributed to this report, as did Scarlet Pruitt of the IDG News Service.

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Todd R. Weiss

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