Web watch

In times of trouble you've got to turn somewhere, says Steve O'Brien

In times of trouble you've got to turn somewhere, says Steve O'Brien

In times of trouble, people turn to the BBC. At least, that what's the beeb would have you believe. The recent terrorist attacks in the US created an unprecedented demand on the infrastructure of the Internet, causing major news sites to jam, with news.bbc.co.uk having a particularly hard time.

The fate of a few web-sites may seem inconsequential in the overall scheme of things, but during any crisis, the desire for information is natural. However, according to Internet performance monitoring organisation, Keynote, the major news sites on the Web were effectively grid locked in the hours immediately following the assault.

Which is a shame, because the week immediately after September 11 showed the Internet in all its glory. Go to any search engine, and find the keyword most used in that week. At Lycos, the top three search phrases were, CNN, News, and World Trade Center. Visit the chat rooms and look at the numbers, nationalities, backgrounds and diverse religions, which came together across the globe. The events affected everybody. News travelled far. But only on one medium did the opinions, views, prejudices and emotions of so many come together: the Internet.

But, in addition to the frustration of the public, and in some cases the desperation of relatives and friends, searching for news, it should serve as a wake up call to those espousing the Internet as the great communication device. According to Keynote, whilst traffic, or more accurately workload, increased by five to six times, the actual backbone of the Internet remained relatively unaffected. Which leads to the conclusion that it was the servers on the sites themselves that were the weakest link.

Imagine if Sky News or BBC News 24 put up a sign saying 'temporary shutdown due to unprecedented interest,' or Radio Four told John Humphreys to keep quiet until the shipping bulletin. And no, broadband is not the answer. Computers have always operated as fast as their slowest components. At this moment in time, the Internet is the equivalent of a Model-T car, but with multi-disc CD player and satellite navigation control. Adding broadband would be like giving it a Cosworth engine: full of potential to reach 130 mph, but likely to lose the wheels before the first corner. In other words, broadband provides the capacity to reach the next bottleneck in record time.

But the Internet isn't just about news sites, and nor is it only a messaging service or a business tool. It is in fact all of these things and more. Despite the dot.com flop, e-business is still predicted to reach not merely the multi-billion dollar levels, but into the trillions within the next few years. If it truly takes off, how prepared can most companies say they are to cope?

Description: BBC News Online
Strengths: Comprehensive news coverage, as you'd expect from the BBC
Weaknesses: Not many
Verdict: If you can't get to a radio or TV, this is the next best thing

Description: The internet performance monitoring organisation
Strengths: Regular updates on Web performance
Weaknesses: Remember, it's not an independent authority, but a commercial operation.
Verdict: Useful figures if compared week on week

Description: The American Liberty Partnership
Strengths: Details on the charity funds set up in the wake of the attacks on the US
Weaknesses: Not applicable
Verdict: If you want to donate, you can pledge online immediately

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