Applications

Software Helps Sites Handle Traffic Surges in Times of Crisis

When crises like the recent earthquake in Asia, the London terror bombings and devastating hurricanes such as Katrina strike, more people than ever turn to the Web for news and real-time updates on these history-making events. This is not a new phenomenon, but it continues to be a growing one.

Rewind four years to September 11, 2001. Terrorism concerns drove millions to the Web in search of related information. According to measurements from Nielsen//NetRatings, CNN.com, for example, saw 74 percent of its total at-home user traffic for the month come in the week immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

More recently, Nielsen//NetRatings reported that Hurricane Katrina drove concerned Web users online looking for real-time weather information and news reports about that crisis. ABCNEWS Digital and MSNBC posted triple digit growth and WorldNow and Fox jumped nearly 100 percent.

A New Dependence

Add to that an overarching trend that’s leading 21 percent of Web users who read newspapers to transfer their readership primarily to online versions, and it becomes clear that Web users have developed a dependence on online outlets for news and information.

The increasing popularity of online news outlets, however, has lead to a slew of challenges for these sites, especially in the midst of crises, when such events send users to their home pages in droves.

Vendors like AlertSite, Keynote Systems, and Dotcom-Monitor are cashing in on a new opportunity with Web site monitoring technologies designed to give online news media sites a visitor’s view of application performance. These technologies can help sites anticipate challenges and make the necessary adjustments at the back end to avoid burdened servers and other problems associated with traffic overload.

“The only measurement that really matters to the user is how long it takes for the information to get pushed down to the browser,” Scott Crawford, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Association (EMA) told TechNewsWorld. “The longer it takes for a browser to be populated with information and imagery, the less likely the visitor is to stick around and see what it has to say.”

Reviewing the Challenge

Even on a slow news day, news and information sites rely heavily on content getting constantly updated to stay relevant to visitors. But in the face of a large-scale crisis, the challenges are multiplied by several factors. The spike in traffic is just the beginning.

Roopak Patel, senior analyst at Keynote Systems, told TechNewsWorld that news and information sites need to understand this crisis dynamic and modify their standard operating procedures during these peak periods. Monitoring or no monitoring, he advises sites to reduce site content to the bare minimum and deliver it without extensive processing of the data. Static content on a simple HTML page is one example of how this could be accomplished, he said.

“News and information sites should also ensure that the most important content on their site is indeed being delivered, even during a crisis,” Patel said. “This can be done by having an established monitoring strategy in place, with a geographic expanse of the user base as well as real-time notification of when end user download times start to degrade or if specific content that is really important fails to download.”

That’s where the technology comes into play.

Understanding the Technology

AlertSite.com CEO Ken Gross told TechNewsWorld that services like its product can measure, diagnose, notify and report on the availability and performance of any Internet-connected device or application.

“Web sites, applications and servers are thoroughly tested as often as once per minute from our 19 global monitoring facilities, which provides detailed performance metrics at each step,” Gross said. “Error conditions and security vulnerabilities are verified through a unique four-step process that confirms and classifies each one. On-demand site diagnostics are available from a control panel.”

Gross said notifications are delivered to the site administrator immediately by e-mail, pager, SMS message or phone and concise reports provide customers with a clear view of performance, availability, and vulnerability. This data allows the site administrator to troubleshoot emerging performance trends and benchmark the Web site and transactions against others in the same industry.

Keynote Systems has a similar technology with its 1,600 measurement computers located in over 110 cities worldwide. Patel said ultimately a company would need to weave this monitoring strategy into its normal operational planning process in order to realize the full benefit.

However, he added, starting with the outside-in monitoring is a critical first step to understanding and anticipating how end user performance changes over time, particularly in times of crisis.

An Ounce of Prevention

EMA’s Crawford said monitoring is a key aspect of prevention because you need to know you are having service and delivery issues before those issues become major problems. The end user perspective, he continued, is a critical component of these types of monitoring services.

“Issues affecting someone looking at a browser from North America might be radically different from issues affecting someone looking at a browser from Asia or some place far removed from the network,” Crawford said. “You really need that level of visibility into what the performance is, no matter where someone is accessing the information from, so you can view of the problems before they arise.”

Of course, Web site monitoring services don’t prevent snafus, but they are part of a comprehensive strategy. Web site monitoring can improve online operations by alerting customers when download times start to degrade or when the site gets overloaded with requests, and put into action the operating procedures, like bringing extra servers online, reconfiguring the architecture design or plainly stripping away site design to bare essentials in terms of content, as Patel suggested earlier.

“Having a plan is more important than ‘hoping it won’t happen’ in many cases,” Patel said. “Any comprehensive plan should certainly include an active role for outside-in monitoring — because this may be the first indication of any site response problems.”

An Uptick in Monitoring

Both AlertSite.com and Keynote Systems report an uptick in business over the past few months in response to the growing popularity of online news and information sites.

AlertSite.com announced record third quarter sales, with 75 percent increase in revenues versus the same period next year and an increase of 16 percent over the previous quarter. Keynote Systems saw third quarter year-over-year revenue jump 26 percent, with eight consecutive quarters of profitability.

“Application-oriented technology is growing considerably overall,” EMA’s Crawford said. “Various aspects of improving the performance and penetration and depth and range of what can be delivered on the Web are also growing quite rapidly. That’s because understanding how a site performs on the user end is absolutely critical to a site’s success.”

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