Watching the inauguration online...or not

President Obama’s inauguration was certainly an historic occasion, and not only on a political level. It exemplified the way attitudes to online media have changed.

An incredible amount of people watched the event online, and other social media outlets reported unprecedented traffic. But how did our internet infrastructure hold up to this most extreme of tests?

CNN recorded over 160 million page views in a 12-hour span, along with 25 million live video streams--a new record for CNN. At peak, CNN estimates that it was serving 1.3 million simultaneous live streams. Additionally, while the BBC’s numbers are not available yet, it expects its live feed to be a record in terms of people simultaneously accessing it around the world.

However, the picture was not all rosy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this incredible amount of interest, there was significant downtime. BBC’s stream was down for 30 minutes, with viewers missing events such as Mr Obama and George W Bush embracing. CNN had to put some viewers on a "wait list," queuing to watch the inauguration.

Meanwhile, Keynote Systems said the internet's top 40 sites slowed down by as much as 60% when the ceremony started.

This downtime poses the question – is internet infrastructure ready for events such as these which now attract a monumental amount of online attention?

Well, the answer appears to be: no, not yet. In general, our infrastructure is resilient enough to cope with the changing way we use content. One of the reasons the BBC’s iPlayer has been so popular is due to the reliability of the service. However, this is because millions of users do not try to access the stream simultaneously.

But over the coming years, people will increasingly look to go online to view and engage with monumental events such as this. We need to find a way to deal with these peaks in traffic to prevent large sections of the internet from grinding to a halt.

This resilience needs to be built into every level, from the content provider to the ISP to the data centre. Through better preparation, next time we can prevent viewers from missing historic moments such as these.