Scaling the Internet

Shortly before 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, employees in the Network Operations Command Center of Cambridge-based Akamai Technologies noticed an unusual increase in Internet traffic. When they learned that it was due to reports of a small plane crashing into the World Trade Center, they were not unduly alarmed. Soon enough, however, it became clear that nothing about the incident was small. After the second plane hit, virtually everyone with an Internet connection was logging on to find out what was happening.

This put an enormous strain on the websites of many of Akamai’s customers, including, The Washington Post, and a slew of other news organs, as well as the websites of the Red Cross, the FBI, and American Airlines, which owned both the first plane to strike the towers, Flight 11, and Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. As Molly Knight Raskin puts it in No Better Time, “the spike on 9/11 proved to be the Web equivalent of a 100-year flood.” It was Akamai’s job to help keep the companies that paid for its services afloat. Akamai’s CEO and CFO were both in California and thus unreachable as the telephone networks failed, so Chief Operating Officer Paul Sagan took over. Remembering that day, he said, “There are these times in life, and 9/11 was one of them for me, when all the unimportant things disappear. I went into this zone, which some people may have interpreted as unfeeling, but for me, it was just about how do we get from A to B to C.”

Tom Leighton and Lewin in front of one of the whiteboards they used to draft algorithms at MIT’s Lab for Computer Science. (Courtesy of Chia Messina.)

Tom Leighton and Lewin in front of one of the whiteboards they used to draft algorithms at MIT’s Lab for Computer Science. (Courtesy of Chia Messina.)

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About the Author

Amy Newman Smith is the associate editor of the Jewish Review of Books.


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