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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
As communities in Louisiana and Texas recover from two devastating hurricanes, our attention is focused on how such events can affect not only cities and towns, but entire universities as well. A number of universities in New Orleans have been forced to close for their fall semester and have started a recovery process that will take years to fully complete.
Higher Education, just like commerce these days, is very dependant upon the Internet. Shortly after Katrina passed New Orleans, schools like Tulane and Loyola had web pages up providing students and employees updates on the status of their institution, even though the administrations of those universities were operating from locations remote from their home campuses.
This does bring up the question of how robust the Internet is in such a widespread catastrophe. The origins of the Internet lay in a much darker scenario of catastrophe. U.S. Defense Department researchers sought the goal of a data network that could survive if a nuclear attack destroyed a part of the network. This led to TCP/IP and the eventual "network of networks" that was the early Internet.
A testament to the Internet came with how much information was available while Katrina was hitting New Orleans. One employee of an Internet site hosting company in downtown New Orleans maintained a blog describing the passage of the storm and many of the developments that happened that city following the hurricane. This included accounts of keeping a generator running so that the data center could stay in operation. It was evident that lack of power, and in some cases lack of land communication lines, was the primary threat to Internet communication in the midst of the disaster and recovery.
The hurricane was on the mind of the Internet2 organization as well, possibly interrupting service if major connections were cut. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Internet2 officials "were worried that just such a problem might arise in their Abilene network, which serves more than 200 colleges, after Hurricane Katrina." In this case, most of the network was unaffected because traffic was rerouted over other parts of the network which were still in operation. But another major failure could isolate one part of Internet2 from another.
Internet2's response to Hurricane Katrina was to add additional redundancy in the network routing. However, the link affected by Katrina "was restored 10 days later, on September 8," according the Chronicle article. Even so, most Internet2 schools would still have the commercial Internet available in the case of an Internet2 failure, so while some projects that require Internet2's bandwidth would have been impacted, it's likely that no school would have been totally "off the air."
So, it seems that the Internet has passed a test. In the wake of the storm, Internet communication from New Orleans provided views of a city trying to deal with storm damage, flooding, and personal catastrophe. The Internet itself, however, was able to keep operating with little of its overall functionality impaired, and those of us in unaffected areas received the benefit of information provided over the Internet, plus the opportunity to use Internet resources to help aid in the recovery process. The idea formed over 30 years ago seems to be working out pretty well.