Agencies expand Web sites to meet growing demand

As an increasing number of Americans are taking to the Internet in search of government information agencies with popular World Wide Web sites are beefing up their systems to meet the public's demand for online real-time data.

NASA for example had 47 million hits on July 8 four days after the Pathfinder landed on Mars and sent stunning color photos from the Red Planet. "We are in the process of bringing a new server online with a different network configuration that will help us push information out a little bit faster and that should be available within the next couple of weeks " said Brian Dunbar NASA's Internet services manager.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also has seen a huge increase in the number of visits to its sites. The number of hits on FEMA's Web site which provides information on natural and man-made disasters skyrocketed from 20 000 a week in January 1995 to about 500 000 a week currently.

Mark Wolfson FEMA's Internet project coordinator for the Office of Emergency Information said during the next six weeks FEMA plans to develop a separate redundant Web site that will increase the agency's ability to serve the increasing number of people visiting its site. "We are setting up a FEMA-redundant Web site that will have all of our files and will be a mirror of our current Web site " Wolfson explained. "It will be on a separate computer and it will run through a separate Internet service provider and it will have its own T-1 connection to the Internet."

Hits on the Internal Revenue Service's site - found on FedWorld which is operated by the Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service (NTIS) - topped 118 million this tax season as the public requested tax forms and IRS publications. The number of files the public downloads increases from 400 000 files during the off season to 2 million during the first 15 days of April.

As more individuals connect to the Internet IRS officials expect an even larger number of hits this tax season. "The peak next year will be about three times what the peak was in the previous year " said Linda Wallace chief of electronic information services at the IRS.

The IRS plans to manage the overload through a system of mirroring Web sites as well as by adding servers. "What we do is basically lease services - both circuitry and the server systems - so we can put multiple servers on and then go down to a lower number of servers when we don't have to use as many " she said.

Many agencies are capable of handling additional traffic. The Social Security Administration has never run more than 10 percent of its total capacity and it does not operate mirror systems said Bruce Carter who heads the SSA's Web site.

Since going online in the spring of 1994 SSA's site has received an increasing number of visitors with more than 1 million hits so far this year. SSA's four high-speed Internet connections can accommodate 1 000 simultaneous visits by 2.8 million people during a 24-hour period.

The agency's site received the most hits in March and April when news reports indicated how anyone with some basic information about an individual could obtain that person's Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statement off SSA's Web site. Carter acknowledged the site had problems handling the excessive traffic but he said the problem was not caused by surpassing the site's hardware capacity. "It turned out we had some server software that wasn't capable of handling that capacity so we immediately upgraded to Netscape enterprise server software which can handle the capacity much better " he said.

SSA's experience illustrates a key componenet to managing increasing hits to a Web site said NTIS public affairs director Renee Edwards: Know how to plan for the volume of customers. "You've got to estimate the number of people and then you have to estimate the capacity of the equipment that you need to accommodate the people accessing your site " she said.

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