Economic bill brings the House (Web site) down

Did Web surfers rushing to see the latest version of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 bring the House.gov site down briefly yesterday? At about 6 p.m. last night, just after the House of Representative's version of the bill was posted, the site went offline and then appeared only in fits and starts for the next few hours, according to observers.

Drafted by the Financial Services Committee, the bill, which calls for the Treasury Department to buy up bad loans made by financial institutions, has been a matter of intense debate, both within Congress and with the public at large. A draft of the bill was posted late yesterday afternoon.

An observer on the Outages list, a mailing list devoted to reporting telecommunications outages, posted at 6:35 p.m. yesterday that the House.gov site was not responding.

The poster executed a traceroute that showed a connection was attempted through a Washington, D.C., AT&T node to the House.gov servers (143.228.144.184), though they were unresponsive.

The poster suggested that the downtime could have been due to a "Slashdot effect," a phenomenon named after a popular IT news site, in which the number of visitors vastly exceeds the capabilities of the servers to handle them.

Later visitors found that the site did return pages, though very slowly. Another visitor had received "Bad Gateway" and "The proxy server received an invalid response from an upstream server" messages. By 8:30 p.m., the site seemed to be serving all requests once again. Some other sub-domains of House.gov, such judiciary.house.gov and clerk.house.gov, seemed to work fine through the outage.

The mailing list's more vocal pundits suggested that the House should invest in load-balancing software, or clustered servers, to prepare for spikes of increased traffic. One chief technology officer bemoaned how organizations all-too-rarely let their IT staffs know when their activities may result in increased traffic.

U.K. Internet security services firm Netcraft reports that the uptime for the House servers, which run an older version of Sun Solaris, has declined since 2006, from 180 days between reboots in 2006, to 67 days in the last scan. At last count, House.gov is the 8,714th most-visited Web site by users of the Alexa traffic-tracking toolbar, according to Web tracking firm Alexa.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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