Commentary: The Internet's greatest test

The Sept. 11 attacks show that the Net provides optimal communications during normal times and maximizes the chance of continued communications during emergencies.

5 min read

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 communications.

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.

See news story:
Ricochet rebounds at WTC ground zero
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 location.

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 traffic.

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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