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Inauguration jolts Internet

Chuck Burton / AP
Amanda Raflo watches the inauguration of President Obama on her laptop while
studying at a coffee shop in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday.

President Obama's inauguration sparked significant traffic jams - not only on Washington's streets but in cyberspace as well, according to Web performance monitors. They reported slowdowns at the Web sites run by the White House and the U.S. Senate as well as at several online news outlets.

The fact that the raw numbers of Web users didn't rise to the levels seen on Election Night suggests the problem wasn't the number of people who were online, but the amount of bandwidth each of those people was using.

"It's safe to say that streaming video was a significant contributor to these slowdowns," said Shawn White, director of external operations at Keynote Systems Inc. Another likely factor is the rapid rise of bandwidth-heavy sharing sites such as Flickr and YouTube, he said.

Keynote Systems is a California-based company that focuses on measuring and testing performance on the Internet and mobile networks. Service providers knew weeks ago that Washington's wireless networks were going to be stressed today, but it turns out that a lot of Web servers far from the scene of the action were as well.

White listed eight online news sites where the response times were significantly slower than normal: ABC News, CBS News, Fox Business, the Los Angeles Times, msnbc.com, NPR, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

"Only NPR actually experienced an outage," he told me. On another front, The Associated Press reported that CNN had to put some viewers on a "wait list" for a while before they could watch the inauguration.

The Bush-Obama transition affected the White House Web site, where pages took twice as long to load in the 10 a.m.-to-noon ET time frame, and up to 16 times longer at 11:30 a.m., White said. Response times snapped back to normal at 12:07 p.m., once the Obama administration officially took charge.

The Senate Web site was 60 percent slower than usual today - and 63 percent of the time, attempts to connect didn't go through at all, according to the Keynote figures. Even Keynote's Business Top 40 sites were affected. "What we saw was a sharp slowdown in performance from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.," White said.

"Obviously the Internet is resilient, and it can handle these events, but it might take longer to do what you want to do," he said.

Keynote can't keep track of how many visitors are clicking into particular Web sites, or what they're doing once they get there. The company's monitoring software can only determine how Web sites are coping with the traffic. But White speculated that the sharp and sudden slowdown could be traced, at least in part, to the "multiple gigabytes of video traffic running on the Internet."

That view was reinforced by figures from Akamai, a Massachusetts-based company that provides streaming-media services for a long list of Web sites, including msnbc.com. In a news release, the company said today marked its biggest day ever for live streaming video.

The peak of more than 7 million active simultaneous streams came at 12:15 p.m. ET, just as Obama was launching into his inaugural address. That figure compares with an average of 1.3 million for the previous 24 hours. Check out Akamai's real-time visualization to see what the current figures are.

"In addition to the historic nature of the inauguration, it is now clear that this event has driven unprecedented demand from an global online audience," Robert Hughes, Akamai's executive vice president of global sales, services and marketing, said in the news release.

Akamai also maintains an index showing the number of Internet users clicking into online news sites, and today's figures showed a significant spike of 5.4 million users per minute at 11:45 a.m. ET. However, that peak ranks just No. 5 on Akamai's all-time list, just below the first day of the NCAA's "March Madness" basketball tournament in 2006.

So what's No. 1? Election Night 2008, when the traffic reached nearly 8.6 million users per minute at 11 p.m. ET.

Of course, the inauguration is a different kind of event. Back in November, Internet users were most likely looking for quick updates on the voting results. Today, they were more in the mood to watch the grand event as it happened, with all the bells and whistles. And because it happened during workday hours, when more people have access to fast connections at the office, that would encourage viewers to become bandwidth hogs.

Video wasn't the only big draw of the day: Traffic also spiked at social networking sites such as Facebook (where users can keep their friends posted on what they're up to) and Twitter (where 140-character "tweets" can be traded among friends). Obama took advantage of such sites during his campaign, so it's only natural that they were in high gear today.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told me that today's tweets-per-minute peaked at a level five times higher than the week-ago average (as shown on this chart). Despite the increased traffic, there were few reports of glitches. Even TwitPic, a Web site that lets Twitter users swap photos, was able to handle the increased load.

"TwitPic made it through the inauguration great, don't think we even experienced any slowness either," the site's creator, Noah Everett, told me in an e-mail. "We upgraded some of our hardware this weekend to handle the traffic."

But before anyone gets overly impressed with today's traffic spikes, consider this claim, advanced by Silicon Alley Insider: Not even Obama's inauguration was as popular as the Puppy Cam.