Obama Inauguration Breaks Streaming-Media Records

1/20/09Follow @wroush

This morning, we gave you a guide to online outlets with live streaming video of President Obama’s swearing-in. This afternoon, we can report that record-breaking audiences accessed these streams, at least as far as Cambridge, MA-based networking leader Akamai was able to measure.

At the height of Internet traffic at approximately 12:15 p.m. Eastern time (during Obama’s inauguration speech), more than 7 million simultaneous data streams were being delivered over Akamai’s network, according to the company. Most of these streams carried live video, with total traffic peaking at a vertiginous 2 terabits per second. That makes today Akamai’s busiest day ever—and by extension, probably one of the highest-volume days in the history of the Internet, since Akamai handles about one-fifth of all Internet traffic globally, giving the company a representative view of network activity worldwide.

Akamai publishes a fascinating real-time visualization of traffic over its EdgePlatform here. The platform is used by a number of large media outlets to speed delivery of broadband video and other digital content to consumers, including CNET, NBC, Thomson Reuters, USA Today, and Yahoo. The New York Times, Ustream, Viacom, and the Wall Street Journal all broadcast live Adobe Flash video of the inauguration today over Akamai’s network.

A visualization of traffic on Akamai's EdgePlatformMeasured by individual Web page requests, traffic around the hours of the inauguration was high but not record-setting: the peak of just over 5.4 million requests per minute, as measured by Akamai’s Net Usage Index for News, came in at fifth place historically, behind election night in the U.S. last November and three sports-related events (a World Cup soccer playoff and two NCAA basketball playoff games).

“It’s really a day about streaming,” says Jeff Young, Akamai’s director of corporate communications. “It was a very high news day in terms of visitors per minute, but the thing to point out about our Net Usage Index is that when you go and access a live video stream and stay on that stream, you’re counted as just one visit. On a day like today, you really want to watch streaming video. So the news today was that the Internet has now matured to the point that people can watch live news for an extended period of time.”

Traffic at streaming media news sites was so high during the inauguration ceremonies, in fact, that Akamai detected a simultaneous drop in traffic to other kinds of websites, including e-commerce sites. “If you do a comparison of our commerce index against our news index, you are able to see less people are shopping during the inauguration, because they are tuned in,” says Young. “There is a pool of Internet users, and while they are doing one thing, they are not doing something else.” (It seems likely, however, that the brief hit to the economy from lower e-commerce traffic was more than offset by sales of Obama memorabilia, or “Obamabilia,” as the New York Times has called it.)

Of course, there’s another big thing that many people probably weren’t doing around noon today: working. Most Web traffic records, says Young, are set during working hours, for the simple reason that people aren’t at home, and therefore aren’t able to tune in for crucial events using their old-fashioned televisions. “That’s exactly why events such as March Madness, where the first 64 games occur during the workday, drive such huge traffic,” Young says. “An inauguration would probably be a big event anyway, but if it were on a weekend, you’d find more people accessing it from their televisions.”

Akamai was prepared for the onslaught, Young says. “Our platform is architected to handle events like this, and our services performed as expected. Certain news sites had planned capacity with us, and in most cases we delivered [at speeds] well above what the plan called for.”

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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