Big storm forces FEMA to beef up Web service

The Federal Emergency Management Agency got some emergency assistance of its own last
month when Hurricane Bonnie threatened to swamp the agency’s Internet connection.


Our Web site was under siege,” content manager Marc Wolfson said.


As the storm moved up the North Carolina Coast, traffic at http://www.fema.gov grew to 2 million hits on Aug.
26—10 times the daily average and more than the T1 connection could handle.


People were starting to get the Internet equivalent of a busy signal,” Wolfson
said.


Responding to an emergency request, Bell Atlantic Federal Systems installed a FEMA
connection to its high-speed Fiber Distributed Data Interface network. Normal provisioning
time for the FDDI Network Service is about 45 days, said Brian Ward, systems manager for
Bell Atlantic Federal, but “we did it in about 13 hours.”


The T1 circuit made a 1.5-Mbps connection from FEMA headquarters to the suburban
Maryland point of presence for Digital Express Internet Services Inc. of Marianna, Fla.,
FEMA’s Internet provider. The Fast Ethernet interfaces installed by Bell Atlantic
technicians at FEMA and at Digital Express increased available bandwidth sevenfold. The
presence of fiber trunks into both locations shortened installation time, Ward said.


FEMA’s bandwidth upgrade, though sudden, was not unanticipated.


We’d been talking about it,” Wolfson said. “We didn’t have any big
hurricanes last year, but we had a sense that if we got hit with a big storm, we could get
extra traffic.”


The four-year-old FEMA Web site serves up 11,000 pages of general information about
agency services and emergency preparedness, as well as up-to-date information on
threatening weather conditions.


Wolfson said the site has become an increasingly important medium for disseminating
public information.


On Sept. 2, when Hurricane Earl was closing in on the Gulf Coast and cleanup from
Hurricane Bonnie and Tropical Storm Charlie was under way, the emergency agency had to
update the Web site eight times.


Besides Web traffic, FEMA’s Internet connection also handles the agency’s
e-mail for 10 regional offices and disaster field offices.


Additional servers, mirror sites and load balancing will be needed later, Wolfson said.


We just dealt with the bandwidth issue,” he said.


FEMA’s main Web server is a Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge 4200.


Several older Compaq ProLiant servers host the search engine and management functions
and are used by individual offices to populate their pages on the site, technician David
Wellman said.


We’ve got a lot of disk space and a good deal of memory,” Wellman said.


Wolfson said available memory is stretched—and loading time reduced—by
minimizing maps and radar and satellite images.   

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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