War spikes traffic at DOD Web sites

Defense Department sites are increasingly providing information to the public

Defense Department Webmasters were caught off guard last month by a dramatic spike in Web traffic, which overwhelmed some Web servers and raised questions about the role of DOD sites as news sources.

In the last two weeks of March, the interest in DOD Web sites exploded, reaching levels Pentagon Webmasters had rarely seen before. Some increase in traffic was expected, but Terry Davis, manager of the Defense secretary's public Web program, said that in the first few days of the war, traffic across federal servers increased by as much as five or six times normal patterns.

"We have seen a jump in government Web sites that normally don't receive that much traffic," said Abha Bhagat, senior Internet analyst with Nielsen//NetRatings. "People just didn't have a reason to visit the Defense Department sites before. But now, perhaps they are going to get the government's viewpoint or perspective."

Visitors discovered DOD sites specifically focusing on the war on terrorism, such as www.defendamerica.mil, which has seen a six-fold increase in traffic, Davis said.

Some specific news events, such as the test detonation of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast in Florida March 11, were of particular interest to the general public. Users requested the video file of the detonation nearly 4 million times.

"That is undoubtedly the biggest single spike that we've ever had," Davis said.

Shortly after that spike, DOD began using edge distribution services, which enable DOD to copy and store Web pages in geographically dispersed servers. When a user selects a page to view, the Web server pulls up pages from the server closest to the user, spreading out the traffic burden. DOD has hired Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai Technologies Inc. for those services.

"This service greatly increases the efficiency and reliability of getting our pages out to the world," Davis said. "Although we had what we believed to be acceptable surge capacity in our normal bandwidth posture, we did not predict the unprecedented high level of Web use that has been reflected throughout the Web during this phase of the war on terrorism and the disarmament of Iraq."

Because the war in Iraq is one of the first to take place in a world connected by the Internet, people have many more choices for where to get information. For the first time, DOD's Web sites have become providers of current events information, including briefing transcripts and information on military equipment.

Lloyd Taylor, vice president of technology and operations at Keynote Systems Inc., a California-based Internet performance management and testing services company, said people tend to be much more discriminating about what they accept as fact and they can check the validity of information.

Amazon.com "has basically trained us to look around," Taylor said. "People now know they can get information at their fingertips and they tend to go to names they know."

Taylor said some of the more obvious federal sites, such as Army.mil and Navy.mil, will probably see a larger spike in traffic than some others as long as the hostilities last.

Under normal circumstances, people would tend to stick with their usual sites, such as CNN.com and MSNBC. com. But this is a different time and people realize that the Defense Department or federal government might provide information that others don't have.

"People who visit [government sites] for news are aware of the fact that they are government sites and, because of that, have a bias," he said. "The government, in addition to providing embedded journalists access to the war, has offered its own form of media coverage all along, and people are interested in what the government has to say."

Taylor said DOD is benefiting from what is commonly referred to as the "slashdot effect," which is the sudden, relatively temporary surge in traffic to a Web site that occurs when another high-traffic Web site or other source posts a story that refers visitors to that Web site.

"The heavier use of search engines can guide people to sites that normally wouldn't receive as much traffic," Taylor said.

Keynote studies reveal that the average download time for some of the more prominent .mil sites was five to seven times longer than on a typical day.

If, for example, a user wanted to search for the words "prisoner of war" and "Iraq," it is possible that a DOD or other federal site would be among the more prominent hits displayed by a search engine.

Davis said some DOD sites saw traffic slowly but steadily increase in the weeks leading up to war.

"Even before the actions to disarm Iraq were renewed on the evening of [March 18], we were beginning to see a surge in interest on the main DOD Web site, DefenseLink," Davis said. "On the week ending March 16, there was an 111 percent increase in page requests over the previous week, 7.1 million requests compared to 3.3 million."

Davis said the measures DOD has taken to ensure its networks stay online were the result of "fortuitous timing" and prevented a "significant system overload."

***

Taking the hits

* The Army's public home page, www.army.mil, continues to have troubles. Download time over high-bandwidth access lines was approximately 30 seconds March 20, after peaking at 70 seconds earlier in the day and remaining at more than 80 seconds for much of the business day March 19. Availability has improved to more than 90 percent, after falling below 80 percent earlier in the day. Normal download time is four seconds.

* The Marine Corps's public home page, www.usmc.mil, is having problems, but they're not as severe as the Army's. Its download time over high-bandwidth access lines was approximately 20 seconds at noon EST March 20, after earlier peaking at more than 30 seconds. Availability has always been excellent. Normal download time is 4.5 seconds.

* The Air Force's public home page, www.af.mil, has generally had excellent performance and availability, although the site was unavailable from 1 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. EST March 20.

* Similarly, the Navy's public home page, www.navy.mil, has had generally excellent performance and availability, but the site was unavailable from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. EST March 20.

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