Tomorrow the stars, today the Web

NASA Web sites have to handle 'mad spikes and swings'

NASA has no trouble setting its sights on the 'billions and billions' of stars in space; it's the proliferation of millions and millions of pages in cyberspace that is getting harder to track.

The space agency has 7,500 Web sites with 20 million to 40 million documents, according to Nitin S. Naik, NASA's chief technology officer, who spoke at last year's Gilbane conference in Washington.

At NASA, Web governance is decentralized, with each program running its own site, said NASA spokesman Brian Dunbar.

The CIO's office is responsible for security and overall Web policies, while the public affairs office has jurisdiction over content. But program offices have a fair amount of autonomy, Dunbar said.

NASA has 'mad spikes and swings' in the numbers of visitors to its Web sites, Dunbar said. Unlike other federal agencies, where the public would visit a site to download forms or find out how to calculate benefits, NASA's main product for the public is purely informational: It's all about space.

'Whenever there's an eclipse or a shuttle launch or a Mars rover landing, we see huge spikes in traffic,' Dunbar said.

The Web sites have to be able to handle these swings. For example, hours before the space shuttle Columbia blew up on Feb. 1, 2003, NASA had just migrated to a new, more robust hosting structure. The old host had been located in the basement of NASA headquarters. That morning, nasa.gov saw a 175-fold increase in traffic, Dunbar said.

This year NASA started writing policy directives with more strategic direction for how NASA will manage its Web space, Dunbar said.

With all this data floating on the Web, NASA has a real challenge in keeping it all current. It actually costs more to take old Web sites down than to leave them orbiting in cyberspace. 'Are you going to spend your Web money on taking data down?' Dunbar asked.

Trudy Walsh

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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