Even as individuals and organizations struggle to recover from
the recent terrorist attacks, the nation and the world must start assessing the
lessons of those events. For information technology groups, one of those lessons is
the key role the Internet has played and is still playing in
When DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)
designed what has become the Internet, one of its goals was to create a network that could survive disasters. To accomplish
this, it chose the technology of packet communications
and built-in maximum switching flexibility, so if one physical
pathway became blocked or cut, the network could reroute packets
to lines that were operating.
The terrible events of Sept. 11 put the Internet to its
greatest test yet in this role. While AT&T lost a major switching
point in Manhattan for a week, cutting some businesses off, many
others turned to instant messaging, e-mail and
collaborative services for communication when the cell phone and
wired telephone networks became congested.
Although it isn't perfect, for many users the Internet became a major
means of personal communication with business colleagues, family
members and friends when the phone networks were clogged or
disrupted. In many cases, this enabled individuals to gain vital
information. Such time-insensitive, store-and-forward
(asynchronous) communication is, in fact, the best application of
the Internet's fundamental design.
While most individuals nationwide turned to the TV for the latest
news, the Internet news sites were also teeming with users.
Although it became difficult to access some key news sites, none
crashed, and overall they did a good job of scaling up their
hardware while cutting back their applications and content
complexity to concentrate on delivering pure-text reports to as
many users as possible.
Even advanced, high-bandwidth Internet applications, such as
voice over IP (VoIP) and Internet-based videoconferences, have
been pressed into service when no alternatives exist. Although
flawed, they have provided a useful alternative.
Meet me on the Net
Emergency services such as the Red Cross are now using Internet
communication tools, including wireless instant messaging, to help coordinate
their efforts. Organizations trying to work around major travel
disruptions are turning to Internet-based collaborative tools,
such as Net meetings and conference calls, to help re-establish
communications and partly to replace face-to-face meetings.
These Internet options also are often
less expensive. The Red Cross, for instance, turned to IM partly
to save money over long-distance phone conversations.
Because the Internet uses packet technology, it makes more
efficient use of bandwidth and is much more flexible in switching
around problems than the circuit-based telephone system
technology. Eventually, the phone system around New York City
could not handle any more calls because all the circuits were in
use. Although Internet service may degrade under large loads, it
tends to spread the loads evenly across all sessions rather than
shutting a large number of users out.
The Internet's design has essentially raised the major
bottlenecks from the network transport level to higher levels in
the stack. In times of heavy load, the big question is whether
individual sites will crash. In this instance, at least, they did
not, partly because the site owners were prepared both to add
extra capacity on demand and to cut back the size and complexity of
the content itself, removing most of the high-resolution graphic
content to favor pure HTML text.
Major services also often have multiple copies of their
information available from multiple geographic sites, enabling
them to better serve different areas and spreading the load in
times of peak use. Some use worldwide hosting services, such as Akamai Technologies, to gain maximum worldwide geographical dispersion. This
also can protect such sites from a sudden disaster at a specific
The Internet, however, is certainly not perfect. Like any other
network, it can do little when local access is cut off,
as is the case when a carrier switch fails and users with dial-up
connections cannot obtain a dial tone. When this happens, the
only answer remains the age-old design alternative of physically
(and electrically) diverse routes that can be switched to when
necessary. Of course, this implies that the backup routes are
not likewise impacted by the failure.
Another Internet imperfection is highlighted by the recent news
about the Nimda worm that is attacking Internet servers and
desktop Web connections, illustrating the Internet's
vulnerability to such an attack. The worm's success demonstrates
the need for organizations and individuals to better protect
themselves against what has become a constant onslaught of
computer worms and viruses.
Fewer dot-coms, more bandwidth
Ironically, the fading of the dot-com economy may have better
prepared the Internet for the emergency than it normally
would have been. This has left extra capacity in the networks
that make up the Internet. Also, while many people were using the
Internet for communications and information access, they were not
doing other, normal activities, which freed bandwidth from normal
In the aftermath of recent events, users need to re-evaluate both
their use of Internet technologies and their policies. Meta Group
clients are already reporting a large increase in both
teleconferencing and Web-based collaborative meetings, and though
that will subside some, we expect companies providing these
services to see a permanent increase in such traffic.
Companies have also increased their use of the Internet in normal
IT communications--for example, file transfers--particularly to
overseas branches, because it offers the least expensive
alternative. We also expect VoIP, as well as audio and video
conferencing via virtual private networks (VPNs), to replace some
traditional international communications and travel.
As part of their preparations for potential disasters, IT
organizations should develop a portfolio of communication
options, including traditional voice, cell phone, VPN and
Internet-based services. By exploiting each properly, the IT
group can provide optimal communications to the business during
normal times and maximize the chance that some of those channels
will survive to play a vital role during emergencies.
Meta Group analysts Mike Gotta, David Willis, Peter Firstbrook,
Val Sribar, David Cearley, Herb VanHook and William Zachmann contributed to this article.
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