Server Farming

Apr 17 2009   2:24PM GMT

Boston Marathon website prepares for traffic surge

Bridget Botelho Profile: Bridget Botelho

About a million people will visit the Boston Marathon website on Monday to check out the 113th annual race, so the IT pros supporting the website have been hard at work these past few weeks making sure the site doesn’t crash that day.

The Boston Athletic Association (BAA)’s technical director, John Burgholzer, spends three weeks prior to the race building the infrastructure at a colocation facility in Massachusetts to support the BAA’s website and other technologies surrounding the marathon, like the new AT&T Athlete Alert System, which delivers text messages to people who are tracking runners whenever their runners hits a checkpoint.

Burgholzer, who owns a technology consultancy company in North Reading, MA called Information Overload, uses Hewlett Packard (HP) blade servers to run everything. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t go the virtualization route, which would probably be quicker and easier, because he doesn’t know enough about it or trust the technology to handle the surge of users during race time.

“We haven’t tried out virtualization at all and I’m not sure we would. We get about 50,000 to 60,000 concurrent connections at peak time during the race, and I’m not sure virtualization would work for us performance wise,” Burgholzer said.

I’ve heard this apprehension about virtualization before, so it appears the technology is not as pervasive as companies like VMware would have us believe. Mainly because guys like Burgholzer are far too busy to learn about an entirely new technology, especially when their traditional approach works just fine for them.

So, Burgholzer adds seven HP ProLiant blade servers to the two that are typically used to run the website, for a total of nine blades running Windows 2003. HP blade servers were the right choice for the BAA because the servers require little space and are easier to manage that rack mount systems, plus, the organization had been using HP gear even before Burgholzer came on board nine years ago, and HP has always been “extremely helpful” at race time, he said.

Before the BAA moved from “a bunch of pizza boxes” to HP c-class blade servers in 2007, cabling and management “was a nightmare,” Burgholzer said. “We would build the data center up before the race using rented systems and people didn’t really care how it was set up, so we had a rats’ nest of cables in the back of the rack,” he said.

By switching to blade servers, the cabling is not an issue; he just slides new blades into the chassis as needed, and the management software makes configuartion easy, he said. The chassis has one gigabyte Ethernet connections on both the front and back ends of the server chassis, which he says are plenty, and he uses F5 Networks technology for load balancing.

With all of that, he’s confident there won’t be any issues with the website on Monday – knock on wood. “We have a pretty well-tuned website now; there was a bit of a bandwidth problem in 2007 and at the peak of the race we have seen the website running slower, but we have gotten it down now,” he said.

The day after the race, Burgholzer will start looking for ways to improve the website and new features to add for next year.

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