Starr Report Burns Up The Net

After the House of Representatives and several commercial Web sites posted Ken Starr's report to Congress on Friday, millions of Internet viewers had difficulty reaching the document online. Long delays were common, and some sites appeared to crash altogether.
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According to an estimate by Internet measurement firm NetRatings, retrievals of Starr-related material constituted some 20% of all Internet traffic on Friday.

But the traffic generated by Starr's report was not the only factor putting pressure on the Internet. A Friday train derailment cut out several fiber lines, and placed the Internet under considerable additional strain.

"It's double-whammy time," said Gene Shklar, vice president of marketing for San Mateo-based Keynote Systems, which supplies Internet performance data and diagnostic services to corporations.

Shklar said the performance of the House of Representatives site, which published Starr's report on President Clinton, had diminished significantly since Thursday. The site's success rate, or the percentage of times it is successfully downloaded, had fallen to 13 percent from about 98 percent, he said.

Although Shklar originally thought a slowdown would only affect those people trying to access Web pages with the Starr report, he said he's now worried the impact could be much greater because of the downed fiber lines. "It'll be really interesting to see what happens," he said.

For now, it's mainly the government and commercial Internet sites that are publishing the Starr report that seem to be cracking under the pressure. Among the Web sites which were not downloading or which returned error messages Friday included the Government Publishing Office and the Library of Congress. In addition, Yahoo's Starr Report site, those of the major networks (including CBS.com) as well as a special report area on America Online all experienced distress. At one point, CBS.com had over 10-thousand requests per second for the Starr material.

Keynote will be tracking the performance for the government sites as well as major news sites. The latest updates can be accessed at the Keynote link below.

Internet advertising agency DoubleClick has been forwarding e-mail alerts to clients, warning them that a train derailment that occurred in Atlanta around 11:15 am ET cut several fiber cables owned by WorldCom, causing a "major outage." The e-mail says the problem "will affect the performance of all networks."

An MCI employee deferred questions about the train derailment to WorldCom, which could not be reached for comment. Web site hoster Exodus Communications also couldn't be eached.

Typically, when fiber lines are cut and an outage occurs at one point along the Internet, data can be rerouted rather quickly, said Clear Ink engineer Jon Stevens. "Performance goes down for a lot of people, but the data still tends to get through," he said.

Shklar said huge news events of the past, including the death of Princess Diana last year, have had minimal impact on the stability and speed of the Internet. However, the release of the latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser last September did cause significant problems for Internet users, he said.

Microsoft's browser, he said, will likely be 25 times larger than the Starr document.

Written by Darren Chervitz