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Sites gear up for Super Bowl Sunday

December 7, 1999
Web posted at: 9:50 a.m. EST (1450 GMT)

by Jaikumar Vijayan

(IDG) -- Dot-com companies airing ads during this year's Super Bowl are making sure they don't fumble after the game.

Several are busy ramping up their networks, hardware and databases to ensure their sites don't get knocked out by the expected surge in site traffic resulting from their Jan. 30 Super Bowl ads.

Their efforts demonstrate the challenges dot-coms face in building systems capable of growing quickly to handle spikes in demand while offering data-center-like stability. And with ABC, which is broadcasting Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, expected to attract more than 100 million viewers in the U.S., dot-coms buying primo commercials are practically inviting surprises.

Take New York-based Ltd. Last year, the company spent $2 million -- half of its total revenue -- for a 30-second spot at advertising's marquee event.

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The resulting 120 percent surge in site traffic during the week following the game -- from just over 800,000 hits per month previously -- was beyond the company's wildest expectations. But the surge also choked its inadequate network and server infrastructure and locked out tens of thousands of frustrated users from its site for days afterward.

This year, will again air a commercial during the game, but this time it's taking no chances. "We are expecting two months' traffic in a one-week time frame... With that kind of a compression, we are looking at all aspects of our infrastructure," said company CIO George Nassef Jr.

The company has increased site capacity sixteenfold -- it won't say how many servers it has -- and has made multiple images of its main Oracle Corp. database to minimize the traffic hitting any one copy. The company's Sun Microsystems Inc. servers and EMC Corp. storage technology sit behind a high-bandwidth meshed network, where each pipe to the server is backed up by another, providing a one-hundredfold performance increase over that of its previous T1 lines. Sophisticated load-balancing switches direct traffic via the fastest available pipes to the servers.

"Planning site capacity tends to be a risk vs. investment decision," Nassef said. Following last year's debacle, "we decided to eliminate the risk by making whatever investment was needed."

Michael Budowski, CEO of Inc., an online invitation Web site, figures his company will spend more than $500,000 on similar upgrades to its servers and networks in preparation for post-Super Bowl traffic. The Orlando company is still finalizing what technology to implement, but Budowski said he thinks it will ultimately comprise new high-end servers, load-balancing switches and redundant T3 networks. The company is also considering spreading its servers over multiple locations. When complete, the new setup will improve performance tenfold over what the company has had in place since it started operations in April, Budowski said.

"We are going to be spending nearly $4 million on the Super Bowl," Budowski said. "Service failure is simply not an option."

Jordan S. Olin, chief technology officer at yet-to-be launched Inc., isn't sure what the traffic will be after the company's Super Bowl ads hit the air.

But the company's site, which will offer computer tips and advice to novice users, has been configured to take at least 1 million hits per day if needed, Olin said.

A prime design goal for both the long term and to handle the more immediate Super Bowl rush is to "eliminate all single points of failure," Olin said.

A pair of high-performance switches capable of handling as many as 96,000 simultaneous hypertext requests will control and manage the flow of traffic to the company's rack-mounted database and Web servers. Mirrored servers, networks, firewalls and databases will provide redundancy.

"You really have to just analyze and see what kind of response you are likely to get in a worst-case scenario" and budget accordingly, said Tommy Fu, chief technology officer at Inc., another Super Bowl advertiser., which made a splash at last year's game, plans to quadruple its cluster of 10 Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge servers for its job-search engines, said Jonathan Lynch, a vice president at the Maynard, Mass. company.

The company also plans to boost server capacity for other functions, such as image-loading, and will partition its Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 database across multiple Dell servers to increase overall system reliability.

"The investment we are making in hardware should see us through at least for another six months," Lynch said.

Fu said he doesn't think the site, which matches start-ups with investors, will see the kind of transaction-intensive traffic some other sites might experience, but he added that he isn't taking any chances.

The company is actively evaluating whether it has to ramp up its Web site systems for the Super Bowl, particularly after two newspaper articles on the company generated a flurry of hits.

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