Bursting at the Seams

by Liz Levy

Of the many millions of web sites out there today, most exist in utter obscurity. But some sites, due to a superb marketing strategy, a catchy URL, a sudden craze, or just dumb luck, manage to attract crowds of visitors or buyers. The holiday season has also been known to suddenly pluck sites out of anonymity.

When a Web site starts doing well and suddenly gets pushed to its traffic limits, a quick fix is often needed to help the server (or servers) keep up with the traffic and handle every page request. A lagging or crashing site can end a success story before it starts.

For many companies the problem starts when they first decide how to host their sites. Of course, every company would lease a fleet of servers if they could, but most can’t. Yet many companies still aim too low when they first start out, and later find themselves without a way to expand their sites or end up paying through the nose to do it.

Freakstyle Success
GMD Studios, a 22-person entertainment and media production company based in Winter Park, Fla., was hired by Fox Television to createFreakylinks.com, the Web-site companion to the television show Freaky Links, which debuted last fall. In the entertainment business, there’s no way to predict how popular a new venture will become. So despite the backing of a big network, the site was allotted a budget no larger than that of many small businesses.

(The rest of Hollywood, however, operates on an entirely different scale — Freakylinks.com’s annual budget is roughly the same as what it costs to produce one episode of the show!)

In January 2000 GMD started hosting Freakylinks.com with San Antonio, Tex.-based Rackspace Managed Hosting. Brian Clark, GMD’s president, wanted a host that could increase network services and capacity for Web sites during high-traffic periods, such as the holiday season or the show’s launch period.

“We noticed high traffic when the show aired on Friday nights,” Clark says. “As the show picked up momentum, we saw the need for additional resources to handle spikes in traffic.”

GMD moved Freakylinks.com from one to three servers, for which it pays $2,800 a month — a bargain for three dedicated machines serving hundreds of gigabytes of data a month, according to Clark. That’s a healthy sum, but easily should be earned back: During October 2000, Freakylinks.com had 577,000 visitors and was the third-most popular television-show site on the Web.

Will your site become that popular? Probably not — and it will probably cost considerably less as well. But it pays to be ready for success.

“The spikes in traffic are what you need to account for, not the average level,” Clark explains. We always plan for the worst-case scenario. There’s nothing worse than a very popular but slow Web site.” So far, GMD’s planning has paid off handsomely.

“How big the site gets will depend on how popular the show becomes, but we’re not maxed out yet,” Clark says. “Most of the time the traffic is moderate and the servers are fine.”

Dedicated Service
When you’re ready to take your site to the next level, look for a host that can offer dedicated servers. Many businesses turn to hosts because they provide consulting and expertise, but without some level of flexibility the solution won’t last.

“Some hosts put your site on shared servers with other companies, which greatly limits the ability to expand,” Clark says. When shopping for a host, don’t just look at how much the package costs right now. Look at the scaling options and what it will cost to grow as much as you want to.

If your host can’t provide dedicated servers, eventually you might have to move things from one provider to another. And getting two different providers to work together to ensure a successful transition will likely become a logistical nightmare. So think ahead. The opportunities for your site are boundless, as long as you’re prepared.

Caching In
Another advanced way to increase a Web site’s performance is by applying server-side caching. Caching can reduce Web-site bottlenecks and allow servers to support more visitors to the site at a time, with fewer content-delivery delays. Caching is ideal for Web sites with dynamic (always changing) content. Sites that offer personalized or time-based information — for example, a site that offers the latest sports scores — almost always will have such pages created dynamically.

Dynamic content is usually generated by a database. For instance, when a visitor to a Web site requests the price of an item, a query to a database is made to retrieve the information. Without caching, the next time someone makes the same request the database query has to take place all over again. With caching, the dynamic information is stored with the page so that the process of going to the database for the information is avoided. This greatly speeds up information delivery.

The official Web site for the Canadian car-racing team, Players-Racing.com, provides visitors live coverage of races, video clips, photo galleries, driver stats, a calendar of racing events, interviews with drivers, and various other types of dynamic information. Much of the content is updated on a daily basis.

Players-Racing.com is a fairly large site, and is almost completely database-driven. During race weekends the site experiences high peaks in traffic. Coniah Chuang, the site’s administrator, concluded that the site required larger server capacity and power. To improve the site’s performance Chuang chose an application called SpiderCache, which can be installed on servers running Microsoft NT.

The Need For Speed
The site administrators can select which pages (or which portion of a page) will be cached. They then set the software to automatically clear the cache at a preset time or whenever a change is made to the database. Pages can be cached to handle different browser types, languages, and locations.

“The cache takes the dynamic pages and turns them into static flat pages, which makes them easier to serve,” Chuang says. “The response time is great even during peak traffic. During the Fontana Race our servers pumped out 18GB of data in three hours.”

Many visitors to the Canadian team’s site speak French. SpiderCache includes a feature that identifies the language of the visitor’s browser (using a cookie) and delivers the site’s pages in either English or French from the cache.

“Without caching we were throwing more servers at the site,” Chuang explains. Having more servers helps you serve more people, Chuang says, but it’s the cache that helps serve the dynamic content faster. “Now, pages are delivered to visitors in about half the time as before. We can serve five times the amount of visitors without server bottlenecks,” he says.

Caching Web content and using hosts that offer dedicated servers are not as advanced as they sound. They are just big-business solutions wrapped in smaller, more affordable packages. And these are the types of solutions you need to start thinking about as your site’s traffic builds.

So think big.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.
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