Akamai shakes up USGS Web site

The U.S. Geological Survey might be the only agency that measures its Web traffic on the Richter scale.

In the minutes after Gilroy, Calif., was rocked by a quake with a magnitude of 4.9 last May, the USGS earthquake site averaged 3,000 hits per second, up from the normal three to six hits per second.

"When an earthquake occurs, particularly a noteworthy one, people want to know what happened," said Jill McCarthy, associate coordinator for the Earthquake Hazards Program.

USGS is a bureau of the Department of the Interior. Part of its mission is to keep emergency workers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the population at large informed about earthquakes. When an earthquake hits, the agency Web site provides information such as time of occurrence, magnitude and location of the quake.

What this means for the office is that its Web servers get hit with an immense amount traffic whenever earthquakes occur, more than the office could handle when it kept its Web servers in-house. Every time an earthquake hit, the office's four servers crashed from the flood of users and its Internet connection would become clogged with page requests, McCarthy said.

"We don't even know what the demand was. It was hard to evaluate after-the-fact how much infrastructure we needed to add," she said.

The office had estimated that the cost to add more servers and bandwidth would be prohibitively expensive. It also would not be particularly smart spending. Even modest quakes like Gilroy happen only about once a month. Most of the time the equipment would be little used.

The office looked into Web hosting services that would allow it to place the pages on outside servers. But since most services were locating their servers at one facility, they too might crash from sudden, steep increases in usage, McCarthy said. The office would also have to contract for peak, not average, usage.

So in September 2001, the bureau turned to Akamai Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass. Akamai is in the business of hosting Web sites as well. But its 13,500 Web servers are scattered around the Internet. And instead of placing customer content on one server, the company mirrors Web pages across multiple machines. If one server goes down -- due to viruses, hacker attacks or sudden surges of traffic -- others automatically pick up the slack.

"It is a network within a network," said Matthew Berk, an analyst for Jupiter Research, a research firm owned by INT Media Group Inc., Darien, Conn.

This distributed approach also improves download speeds. Because Akamai servers are located in 66 countries, those closest to the users initially handle the data, minimizing the number of routers information travels through. With larger files, this approach can produce noticeable improvements in download times, Berk said.

The USGS has been pleased with the performance, McCarthy said.

Now, USGS posts its Web pages on its own content server. The pages are picked up by Akamai and distributed over a number of Akamai servers worldwide. Whenever a user types in the address "Earthquake.usgs.gov," the Web page are returned not from a server at the USGS office but from the closest available Akamai server. If that site were to fail, the request would be fulfilled automatically by another Akamai server.

In addition to handling spikes of traffic, the distributed infrastructure makes USGS immune to distributed denial of service attacks, a problem USGS has experienced in the past, said McCarthy.

Price-wise, the agency "negotiated a pretty darn good deal" with Akamai, McCarthy said. The office chose Akamai's EdgeSuite for e-Government package, which starts at about $15,000 per month. If the agency exceeds the traffic limit, a surcharge is levied, though McCarthy said the agency felt it would "unlikely amount to more than one month extra service."

The USGS win is an example of Akamai's recent increase of focus in the government market. The company has experienced rapid growth in the commercial sector, jumping from $4 million in revenue in 1999 to $89.9 million in 2000 and $163.2 million in 2001. Its services are employed by high-traffic companies such as CNN and the L.A. Times.

Only more recently has Akamai been making inroads into the government space. Other agencies using the service include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Government Printing Office. In July, the company's EdgeSuite and EdgeScape platforms were awarded a five-year spot on GSA's IT schedule, further expanding its government opportunities. (EdgeScape offers additional services in user validation and geography-specific content delivery.)

"When you look at e-gov initiatives, informational assurance issues, delivering content to the war fighter, all those play into exactly what our strengths are," said Keith Johnson, Akamai's director of federal operations. *

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at


About the Author

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

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