News sites ready for war

As the US-led invasion of Iraq begins, news sites are gearing up for heavier than normal traffic and concentrating on providing easier access to war stories for readers.

As the US-led invasion of Iraq begins, news sites are gearing up for heavier than normal traffic and concentrating on providing easier access to war stories for readers.

Wilson & Horton's general manager for digital publishing Mark Ottaway says special versions of pages have been prepared for use if they are needed. However, he isn't expecting as much traffic through the New Zealand Herald site as was recorded during the America's Cup.

"We don't expect the traffic to be anything like the peaks of the America's Cup or the Oscars or even September 11. We suspect that the build up to it is different and it's not a sudden event in the way they were."

Ottaway says the Herald will focus on making access to stories easy.

"We're doing the sort of thing we've done in the past in terms of stories where we'll keep them all in one place. The emphasis is on the editorial side rather than the technical."

Nzoom will focus on the technical - it will be using its relationship with TVNZ to screen streaming video from CNN, says executive producer Glyn Jones.

"Because of our rights deal with CNN we are streaming some material as well as TVNZ's stuff."

Jones says traffic loads to the site were heavier than normal in the lead up to the 3.15pm announcement by George Bush.

"The load was heavy in the lead-up rather than after the announcement. People know what's going on and they're a bit more relaxed about finding out."

Jones will be discussing moving the site to a low-graphics front page if need be and will be in touch with advertisers.

"I'm not sure if anyone's asked to be pulled off at this stage. We'll stay in touch to make sure they're comfortable."

Jones says the company won't be buying in more bandwidth at this stage.

"Every time we do this sort of thing we learn a little more about how to cope with demand."

INL's Stuff news portal doesn't expect to have to degrade the front page to cope with demand as it has just undergone a back-end systems revamp and should have enough capacity to cope, according to project manager Adrienne Christie.

"Earlier this year we pumped up our servers and did some database optimisation and generally focussed on making sure the system works all of the time."

Christie says that project is ongoing but the project's priority is in giving INL enough capacity to deal with such stories.

"We obviously see the increase in hits for content relevant to New Zealand but for something like this I'd expect a lot of the traffic to be going to the international sites like CNN and BBC. It may very well not be the enormous blip that it would be for some of those sites."

XtraMSN, the country's busiest site, has a low-bandwidth site standing by, but hasn't seen the need to go live with it yet, according to Xtra spokeswoman Anna Kermode.

"We're constantly updating the site and we have plans in place should we need them but at the moment we're coping well."

Kermode also says Xtra will launch a breaking news email service in the next few days to supplement its website.

The National Business Review's webmaster, Francis Till, is aggregating news from sites around the world and says the NBR site itself isn't expecting a huge increase in traffic.

"What we're planning on doing is synthesising news to give snapshots and we'll pass out an awful lot of links to primary news sources. We don't have a reporter on the ground so we're relying on others' reporting."

Till says he'll be scouring the web for alternative worldwide news sources.

"Then we'll be looking for the business news stories - impact on the airline industry, that sort of thing."

Till says the NBR site has seen growth in traffic all year long.

"The traffic all this year has been increasing. I guess it's just more people coming to the web for their news."

Meanwhile, US online news providers are also preparing their sites for a spike in traffic.

Cable News Network's CNN.com, for example, has been performing load balancing among its servers and has changed the appearance of its site, adding a new special report section, according to Monty Mullig, senior vice president of CNN Internet Technologies.

Traffic to the site has been swelling as the possibility of war draws nearer, Mullig says and in the build-up to war it was twice as high as it was earlier this year.

CNN.com and other sites already took steps to increase their network capacity and make contingency plans following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when news providers were caught off guard by the sudden uptick in traffic as net users rushed to their computers to find out what was going on.

Inundated with traffic on September 11, CNN.com was forced to strip its graphics and quickly boost its bandwidth. Since then, the site has added to its server capacity and implemented load balancing.

"We learned a lot on September 11 about demand. It changed our approach drastically," Mullig says, adding that CNN.com has been gearing up to be able to absorb another event of that scale.

"We think we have more than enough capacity," Mullig says. "But it's like buying a car they say can go 130 miles per hour. You don't actually know if it can go that fast until you try it out."

CNN.com isn't the only news site shifting gears in the face of war. Reuters Group's Reuters.com has recently plugged in an extra web server and application server it had on hand, according to Reuters.com development director Christopher Gruber.

"We are preparing for additional traffic," Gruber says.

He added that Reuters.com has had 2.5 million pageviews a day so far this week, compared to 1 million pageviews a day that the news provider's US site had a month ago.

Reuters' wartime preparations also include an expansion of content, as the site rolled out a new streaming video feature Wednesday (US time), that allows users to view raw war-related footage on the Iraq crisis.

"This is the first time that Reuters has gone to market with a consumer video product over the net," says Rich Sabreen, executive vice president and global head of Reuters Media.

"Reuters Raw Video: Conflict in Iraq" is currently free but Sabreen says that the company plans to make it available only through paid subscription within a week.

"We want people to sample it and preview it because it's not what they are used to seeing," Sabreen adds, noting that the footage is not packaged with anchor commentary, and is streamed with "natural sound" from the scene.

The video is streamed via The FeedRoom.com, which powers over 100 media streaming destinations on the web, according to FeedRoom CEO Jon Klein.

Klein says that the video offering is important because "a majority of US workers have broadband in their office and much of this conflict will take place while people are at work."

That news sites are able to bolster both their capacity and content is mostly thanks to measures they have taken since September 11, according to Harald Prokop, director of Network Intelligence at content delivery provider Akamai Technologies, which has a handful of news sites and government agencies as customers.

"People have come to us about provisioning capacity, securing sites against attack, limiting streaming and preparing lightweight versions of their sites," Prokop says.

The big difference between how sites are handling the Iraq situation versus how they dealt with September 11 is that this time they are prepared, Prokop adds.

"Most companies have contingency plans and have budget teams focused on preparing," he says.

Still, news providers do not expect to see a traffic jump as severe as during September 11 given that the conflict in Iraq has been widely anticipated.

"We're comparing this to an elections event, like in 2000," CNN's Mullig says.

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