Flash crowds are something that I think about a lot. This is mainly because it’s one of the prime challenges of building distributed systems.
Consider what happened in 1999 when Victoria’s Secret ran a Super Bowl ad announcing an online webcast of its Spring Fashion Show. The result was a sudden large volume of traffic to their site to view the webcast, so much that many customers were unable to view the webcast because the server could not handle the flash crowd.
A similar problem occurred after 9/11/2001, when everyone went to their favorite online news outlets for the emerging story.
What separates the two, of course, is that Victoria’s Secret planned their webcast (but failed to forsee the limits of their servers), where crisis situations are unpredicted, and generally not provisioned for.
This was clear in handling the San Diego firestorm last week in several ways, two of which I’ll mention here. What I find fascinating is how the people involved here had to adapt their technologies to handle the Crisis. In general, unexpected situations may always lead to this, and the people involved should largely be applauded. But at the same time, this presents us an opportunity to look at what happened to try and prepare automated systems for next time. Specifically, we need to improve or GIS/Mapping techniques, and our transparent web-content scalability techniques.