US Report: Can government handle Starr report Web traffic?

Web infrastructure experts have one major piece of advice for the House Judiciary Committee as it wrestles with the question of how to bring Kenneth Starr's long-awaited report to the Internet: Think multiple servers.
Written by Maria Seminerio, Contributor

The report by the special prosecutor, said to deal with alleged perjury under oath by President Clinton, among other allegedly impeachable offenses, spans thousands of pages and is now under armed guard in a Capitol Hill office. But perhaps as early as today, at least part of it could be available online, and observers agreed the material could draw an unprecedented Web audience.

The report's release "could be a really huge Web event," said Dan Merriman, an analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass. Merriman said it might draw record traffic to sites that post it.

Mirror, mirror

So how to cope with the huge demand? The chief technical officer of Frontier GlobalCenter Inc., a Web hosting and content distribution firm with clients including Yahoo Inc., Playboy and USA Today, said it's crucial for the government's Webmasters to deploy multiple servers in multiple locations.

Otherwise, said CTO Jonathan Heiliger, many Netizens trying to get a look at the report could be locked out. And if the report is posted on the Library of Congress-run THOMAS network of federal government sites, absent the proper precautions, THOMAS itself could crash, Heiliger and other experts said.

Several key questions remained unresolved as of Thursday afternoon. Among them was the question of what format the report would take. If it were to be posted as an Adobe Acrobat or WordPerfect file and made available for download, it could put major pressure on servers, forcing the government's Web gurus to ensure the system could handle many simultaneous downloads of the document.

"They'll need the capacity to very quickly scale it to accommodate fluctuating demand," Merriman said.

If the report were simply made available for perusal via Web browsers, some of that pressure might be eased, but surfers would be likely to stay online for long periods looking at the material, he said.

Another big question, literally, is the size of the online file. Even if the government were to post the entire 445-page executive summary of the report, it would likely still be smaller than, say, Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator software, said Frontier GlobalCenter's Heiliger. But the report would clearly make a sizeable download for Netizens using dial-up connections, he said.

"Regardless of what file format they put it in, it's still a pretty hefty document," Heiliger said. "The average file transfer time, even taking corporate networks into consideration, is still around 33Kbps," he said.

"The bigger it is, the more load it puts on servers and Web connections," Merriman added.

'No worse time'

Earlier Thursday, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, announced that at least some portions of the report would be posted online, currently expected to happen between 2 PM and 4 PM ET on Friday. The House Rules Committee must first vote on a resolution on accepting the document for review, a vote which is set for 4 p.m. ET. Once the full House votes on the resolution sent to the floor by the Rules Committee, the report can be made public.

There could hardly be a worse time, according to Alaina Kanfer, a research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

"The East Coast around the District of Columbia has real bottlenecks in the afternoon. Sometimes it is hard for government workers to use it (the Internet), even mirror (duplicate) sites," she said.

"It's going to really show that we are bandwidth-restrained in this country," she said.

She likened the eastern corridor problem to traffic congestion on a freeway -- "the roads aren't wide enough yet everyone expects to get around."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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