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War spotlights need for hardy Web sites

With the U.S. engaged in a war in Iraq, a wide range of organizations are watching their Web sites get bombarded with traffic from information-hungry surfers, and targeted by protest attacks from an emerging breed of online malcontents whose message isn't so much "make love not war," as it is "attack servers, not countries."

Organizations have encountered a variety of online problems related to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. From news outlets struggling to cope with wildly increased traffic to government sites and businesses targeted by Web-based war protests, it has become clear that the Internet is emerging as a secondary field of battle.

From the opening moments of the war, users have turned to the Web for up-to-the-minute information and to express their support or disenchantment with the conflict. A study released this month by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Internet & American Life Project indicated that 77% of Americans with access to the Web have used the Internet to gather or exchange information regarding the war in Iraq.

Individuals are also using the Web to attack sites that promote opinions contrary to their own. Two high-profile examples of the trend toward "hactivism" include the shutdown of Qatar-based news outlet al-Jazeera's Web site by hackers and a coordinated online "sit-in" by the U.K.-based Electrohippie Collective, which drove large amounts of traffic to pages operated by the U.S. and U.K. governments. This effort proved effective on some level when the Web site for 10 Downing St., the office of Britain's prime minister, was shut down for a short time.

One company tracking the performance of major Internet backbones as well as government, commercial media and antiwar Web sites is Keynote Systems Inc., in San Mateo, Calif. Keynote specializes in providing companies with Internet performance management data, and the company is leveraging its experience in the field to produce a daily Iraq War Internet Performance Report.

Lloyd Taylor, vice president of technology and operations at Keynote, said that it has become more important for businesses and government authorities to re-assess their Web operations and prepare for potential waves of traffic and online harassment. The most popular form of Internet protest involves denial-of-service attacks, whereby a large number of users or a software program directs traffic to a particular site in hopes of overloading server capabilities and crashing the site's pages, he said.

"Why walk to the White House with a picket sign when you can sit at home, or even at work, and be part of a protest?" Taylor said. "It's increasingly clear to activists that it's not hard to kill a site, and there's a much lower chance of facing any retribution."

Taylor said Keynote has found that overall Internet performance among U.S. Internet backbones has stayed normal, as has reliability among major U.S. businesses and government sites. This does not mean protesters have not attempted to target these holdings, Taylor said. The executive said the Electrohippie protest also hoped to crash the White House site, but the distributed Internet backbone between the U.K. and the U.S. kept traffic from jamming too rapidly.

Several U.S. military Web sites have struggled to keep up with traffic demands, according to Keynote. Both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps sites experienced performance issues that appeared related to Web server capacity issues, according to Keynote. Minor performance issues have troubled the Department of Defense and Federal Emergency Management Agency sites, Keynote reported. Taylor pointed out that large numbers of individual users who were just surfing for information likely caused these hiccups, but it is often impossible to differentiate normal traffic from a coordinated denial-of-service attack.

Taylor said that aside from the al-Jazeera site, which remains down, most news providers have done well in handling the onslaught of traffic. This is largely because newsmakers implemented plans to transition rapidly to "lightweight" Web pages, featuring more text than graphics and better image compression. Many of the lightweight plans were made after the onslaught of demand following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Looking forward, Taylor encouraged U.S. businesses to redouble efforts to make sure their Web sites are secure from traffic overloads. Companies that face the greatest threat are those that stand to profit from the conflict, such as businesses involved in defense contracting or post-war clean-up projects. Taylor pointed out that companies closely associated with U.S. culture should also remain wary. Even fast food chain McDonald's Corp. inexplicably saw a huge spike in traffic during the opening days of the war, Taylor said.

Keynote offers three tips to IT managers who are concerned with tailoring their Web sites to handle potential traffic bursts:

  • Prepare for spikes in traffic by designing site architecture to rapidly balance server loads according to increased demand.
  • Conduct load balancing tests from outside organization firewalls to get a better idea of how traffic impacts site performance.
  • Measure performance from a user perspective to get a realistic assessment of how internal load balancing will affect the end-user experience.


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