CDC responds to surge in Web traffic with more servers, outside help
A month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, anthrax killed or infected 18 people, closed down post offices and forced a quarantine of a congressional office building.
In the midst of this bioterrorism scare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site was unable to handle the enormous surge of traffic from a public desperate for information.
The CDC Web site crashed on Oct. 12 because one piece of hardware failed. And the agency could not find a replacement anywhere in Atlanta, where it is based.
The agency finally found a new part and had it airlifted to headquarters. It took six hours at a time when "we were getting an incredible amount of traffic because of concern and anxiety about anthrax," said Jim Seligman, CDC's chief information officer.
But it will never happen again, he added. Since then, the agency has made sure that there is no single piece of hardware in the system that can fail and take everything down with it.
To ease the Internet bottleneck and relieve the demand on CDC's own servers, the agency has also installed a system that uses off-site servers hosted by Akamai Technologies Inc. to back up the agency's information.
Akamai's EdgeSuite service is being used by many government agencies seeking a smoother and faster way to respond to its Web customers. Instead of relying on the limited capacity of an agency's servers, EdgeSuite stores and saves Web products across 13,000 servers in 66 countries using large backbone providers, Internet service providers, broadband-enabled providers, university and state networks, and other telecommunications facilities.
Akamai's service reduces the need for an agency to continually update its server to keep it from becoming antiquated. It also accommodates surges in Web site traffic, preventing slowdowns and, more importantly, keeping information available even if one or more servers crash.
"There are several benefits to this type of technology," Seligman said. "Getting access to the information is much more rapid. It puts the information closer to the user, and the user does not have to contend with others hitting the same Web site at the same time."
The idea is rapidly gaining popularity as companies and government agencies search for ways to protect their data. Among the government agencies using the system are the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Government Printing Office, the FBI, the White House, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Voice of America. Akamai provided streaming video of the president's State of the Union address in January to make it faster and more accessible to the Web-savvy public.
The service is becoming even more popular with such companies as Yahoo Inc., Victoria's Secret and MSNBC.com.
"We act as the front door," said Chris Carlston, Akamai's federal sales man.ager. "You cannot bring it down with a [denial-of-service] attack."
Akamai's technology has drawn criticism from privacy advocates, however, because it shunts computer users from highly congested sites to less congested ones by capturing users' IP addresses and comparing them to geographic IP address tables compiled by the company's servers. Some critics have likened the practice of locating a Web surfer by an IP address to locating an individual by a ZIP code. In the private sector, Akamai's technology is often used to "personalize" the information a Web user sees when he or she accesses a Web site.
But supporters say the Akamai system takes the headache out of managing a Web site infrastructure. Like CDC, USGS has had a positive experience with the technology, which has helped the agency continue providing public access to its Web site during and after earthquakes.
In the past, USGS could not handle a major surge in traffic on the Web, according to Jill McCarthy, associate coordinator for USGS' Earthquake Hazards Program.
"In order to provide information to the public, we have to make sure we can respond to every hit," McCarthy said. "To get timely information out, we needed to improve our system. Rather than try to build that kind of capacity internally ourselves where the equipment becomes antiquated, it was much more effective to go with Akamai."