The terrible events in London overnight do have some relevance to us as humble IT workers. While there are many critical jobs performed in such situations by the emergency services, communications and other systems are also important.
Obviously top of the pile in this respect are the systems dealing with the emergency services themselves: their communications and despatch systems — and we know that mobile phone networks were affected by the chaos. A few notches down, but growing more significant, are the web sites (and background systems that feed them) to inform the public.
While the BBC News web site seemed to generally cope as events unfolded (I’m sure they’re well-versed at this kind of incident), their live video and audio streams were swamped. Likewise CNN responded okay, though ITN was sluggish. The Transport For London site didn’t respond for some time, before they switched to a plainer, less server-intensive basic information page.
Last week Connex in Melbourne suffered a shutdown, and similarly, their web site didn’t cope. While most disruptions are also communicated to SMS subscribers, the shutdown itself was caused by problems with the same systems used for sending out the alerts. Melbourne’s public transport umbrella site Metlink was responding, but the problem there was a lack of updates.
As the web becomes more pervasive, and media outlets also use it to gather information, capacity planning for peak demand becomes important. Obviously no organisation wants to spend up big on servers that never get used, but for mass communication of detailed information, the web is cheaper than employing operators or even installing masses of phone lines, and will play an increasing role in keeping the general public informed of events.