Attacks show Net's strength, weakness

Attacks show Net's strength, weakness

How some government sites held up during crisis

  • Peak latency, 54 seconds on Sept. 13; lowest availability, 66 percent

  • Peak latency, 104 seconds on Sept. 12; lowest availability, 96 percent

  • Peak latency, 177 seconds on Sept. 11; lowest availability, 87 percent

  • Peak latency, 25 seconds on Sept. 12; lowest availability, 99 percent

  • Peak latency, 2.5 seconds on Sept. 11; lowest availability, 100 percent

  • Outage between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sept. 11; lowest availability otherwise 99 percent

    Source: Keynote Systems Inc.

  • On Sept. 11, the SANS Institute of Bethesda, Md., was holding an information security training conference at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel.

    'At the very end of the hall there was a federal conference,' SANS' Steven Northcutt recalled. There were no signs advertising it, but the attendees were clearly law enforcement types, said Northcutt, himself a former government worker. 'We were amused because they were kind of obvious.'

    When news of the terrorist attacks began breaking, the SANS audience began logging on to the conference's wireless network. Soon the feds were asking to use the SANS access points, Northcutt said.

    'Very quickly our Internet service began to degrade,' he said. By a combination of e-mail and America Online Instant Messenger software, the federal agents managed to communicate with their offices and went on their way.

    'It was definitely Instant Messenger's day,' Northcutt said. 'I've never really liked it before, but after this I'm going to start storing people's names.'

    The incident illustrated the Internet's strengths and weaknesses. Originally designed for redundancy by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Net kept going after the attacks when telephone systems'both wired and wireless'faltered from physical damage and heavy traffic.

    Federal sites did well

    The Net provided point-to-point communications, but as a broadcast medium it fell short of radio and television. According to Keynote Systems Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., news sites were particularly hard hit., and were unavailable between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., and several other sites declined to 20 percent or less availability.

    Government sites fared better, remaining about 90 percent available for the most part, although the CIA's site, at, dropped to a low of 66 percent around noon.

    Although on average availability remained high, users had long waits for government pages to load. Among the hardest hit was the FBI home page, at, where latency spiked to nearly three minutes the morning of the attack. The Federal Aviation Administration site, at, suffered a 104-second delay early in the afternoon.

    Performance problems resulted from heavy traffic rather than network damage, Keynote reported.

    'Although the Internet backbone infrastructure was not significantly affected, there was an overall decline in Internet performance starting at 9 a.m.,' Keynote said.

    Network traffic of all kinds was heavy in the New York area where damage was greatest, according to Sprint Corp. and WorldCom Inc., which provide network and telecommunications services to federal agencies under the FTS 2001 program.

    WorldCom described the increase in traffic as dramatic, and Sprint said there was a fourfold jump in both voice and data traffic. By the morning of Sept. 17, call volume on the Sprint wireless network remained three times higher than normal for New York.

    Volume combined with damage to the local infrastructure caused service failures and blocked calls throughout the New York area. The Government Emergency Telecommunications Service, a high-priority network provided by Sprint, WorldCom and AT&T Corp., was activated for government workers.

    Under the Telecommunications Priority Service agreement, the phone companies gave top priority to designated agencies for new service orders and restoration of service.

    A week after the attacks, telecom service in much of lower Manhattan still was being provided through makeshift arrangements as emergency equipment arrived.

    Sprint programmed all 108 of its pay phones in Manhattan to provide free local calls, and WorldCom brought in an emergency mobile telephone facility from Richardson, Texas, to provide free service. Both companies also rerouted voice and data connections to government offices that were relocated in New York and near the Pentagon outside Washington.

    Videoconference interest

    Among companies contributing goods and services to the federal recovery effort was PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass. It loaned the Federal Emergency Management Agency videoconferencing equipment and also loaned 100 systems to hospitals.

    Because of security concerns and disruptions in air travel, observers predicted an increase in the use of videoconferencing.

    'This is the best time of all to use the technology,' said Darlene McKinnon, deputy district director of the Small Business Administration's San Francisco office.

    McKinnon is a videoconferencing evangelist, having wangled a pair of top-of-the-line PictureTel 970 units for demonstrations in her district. 'It's not just savings in plane fare but in productivity also,' she said.

    Roopan Jain, a strategic analyst with Frost & Sullivan of Mountain View, Calif., agreed.

    'People will certainly take a closer look at conferencing as a cost-effective alternative to travel,' she said. 'Things are not going to be the same for a long time to come.'

    About the Author

    William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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