Inauguration buckles, but doesn't break, the Internet

Social networking and video traffic slowed Web sites when President Obama was sworn in. But the Net survived.

President Barack Obama's inauguration generated massive Web traffic last Tuesday, fueled by unprecedented amounts of live video streaming and a flood of postings on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Internet didn't collapse under the strain, but many media and government Web sites experienced performance slowdowns, according to Internet monitoring firms Keynote Systems Inc. and Gomez Inc.

Keynote also reported that a group of 40 large corporate Web sites it tracks saw a collective slowdown. That was likely caused by the demand placed on the Internet's bandwidth by the millions of live video streams being delivered to online viewers, said Shawn White, Keynote's director of external operations.

The performance problems weren't unexpected, given the groundbreaking nature of the online activity related to the inauguration. For example, it was the first transfer of presidential power since online video became common, and live streaming records were widely broken.

"Traffic is completely through the roof," a CNN spokeswoman said late last Tuesday. The news network's Web site generated about 160 million page views and 25 million video streams between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern time that day. The streaming total easily surpassed CNN's previous one-day record of 5.3 million streams, set on Election Day in November.

The social networking phenomenon was another new factor. CNN contributed there as well, via a deal that let Facebook users post messages to one another while watching the inauguration on CNN.com Live.

Internet users also flocked to sites such as Twitter and Tumblr to post their thoughts about the proceedings. At its peak traffic level, Twitter was processing five times more "tweets" per second than usual, according to Biz Stone, co-founder of the microblogging site.

"It's difficult to prepare for something that's unprecedented," Keynote's White said. "On a positive note, I had heard predictions that the Internet would crumble, which didn't happen."

Further complicating matters was the fact that so much of the traffic was compressed into the one hour or so from the start of the formal ceremony to the end of Obama's inaugural address. That posed a much bigger challenge than, say, the millions of video streams delivered by NBC from the Summer Olympics in China over a two-week period last year.

"It's hard to build in enough network capacity for a one-time event like the inaugural," said Matt Poepsel, vice president of performance strategies at Gomez.

It would be financially "imprudent," Poepsel added, for companies to always maintain processing levels with enough capacity to handle such events. As a result, Web site operators often have to make educated judgments about how many servers and network links to add in such situations, he said.

Before the inauguration, CNN.com officials said they were "cautiously optimistic" that they had added enough video capacity to the Web site to handle the expected onslaught of live streaming.

Even so, some users who tried to connect to the CNN video page just before Obama took the oath of office received the following message: "You made it, [but] so did everyone else. You have a place in line." At the same time, a Boston-area Computerworld reporter was unable to access the video streams at either CNN.com or CBS.com from a home office.

Cell phone networks in the Washington area were also sometimes overloaded during the ceremony, as the millions of people on and around the National Mall tried to make calls, send text messages and upload videos.

But Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst in Atlanta, described the performance of the mobile networks as "a success, with a hiccup here and there." Some problems were inevitable, Kagan added. "In situations like this," he said, "there simply cannot be enough capacity."

Perez writes for the IDG News Service. Computerworld's Sharon Gaudin contributed to this story.

This version of this article originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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