Open source: A sunny forecast

Four years ago, Weather.com, the online counterpart of The Weather Channel Interactive Inc.'s 24-hour TV channel, relied entirely on proprietary commercial software to serve up millions of Web pages of maps, forecasts and hour-by-hour weather data every day.

Today, the Atlanta-based Web site serves more than 50 million pages on stormy days, but it runs almost entirely on open-source software and commodity hardware. And since the move to the new architecture, it has slashed IT costs by one-third and increased Web site processing capacity by 30 percent.

"Where it makes sense, we will always look at open-source alternatives," says CIO Dan Agronow. The reason is simple, he says: Despite the self-serving air of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) that commercial vendors create around open-source software, lots of open-source products work very well and can be deployed and run for about half the cost of commercial products.

Agronow recalls one time when an IBM Corp. sales representative warned him that he'd likely lose his job for dumping IBM's WebSphere application server and formal support program for an open-source alternative.

"We've heard a lot of the FUD about how you can't replace Netscape with Apache, or WebSphere with Tomcat (application server software), but when we've tried it, we haven't seen the gotchas that the vendors all tell us about," says Agronow, who worked at IBM as a technical project manager for 14 years before joining Weather.com.

"My experience is we have actually received better support of open-source software than we have with commercial software," he adds.

The Linux switch

But that's not to say there haven't been technical challenges. One of those surfaced in 2001 when Weather.com was still running WebSphere but decided for financial reasons to change operating systems, migrating from a Sun environment of Solaris running on Sun 420R servers to Linux running on IBM xServer 330 servers.

"We had problems like installation scripts not working or the GUI not connecting to do the proper administration. There were various things that were subtle differences between the platforms that hadn't been totally worked out on Linux," recalls Jon Badenell, Weather.com's chief architect. "Nothing was a showstopper, but it was not a turnkey installation either."

Working with IBM, Weather.com's 23-member team of systems administrators, developers and architects resolved all of the inconsistencies. In the process, they boosted both their confidence and skills as open-source experts. And Weather.com saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by moving off the Sun servers, Badenell says. "Literally, in some cases it was orders of magnitude cheaper to go to the Linux boxes," he says. "We replaced machines that were US$500,000 with machines that were $50,000."

Tomcat vs. WebSphere

Bolstered by its success with Linux on Intel-based machines, the IT team began looking for an open-source application server to replace WebSphere. Again, cutting costs was a major driver. Another was reducing the complexities and overhead associated with running the complex and feature-rich WebSphere.

The WebSphere servers were showing signs of strain and required repeated restarts as Weather.com's traffic load steadily increased, spiking to more than 18 million page views one day during a snowstorm in January 2002.

"Our Web site is big, and we get a huge number of hits, but we don't do a lot of complicated stuff. It's not transactional, and users are reading data, not submitting it, so we didn't use three quarters of what WebSphere actually offered," says Badenell. "There was an overhead penalty from just the size of the installation and the administration of it."

Weather.com's software developers also found WebSphere to be cumbersome and slow. As a work-around, they frequently developed applications using another tool and then ported them to the WebSphere application server.

"It was hard to run WebSphere and an IDE (integrated development environment) because of all the resources WebSphere took," recalls Jeff Cunningham, who leads the Internet application development team at Weather.com. "You had to run an instance of DB2 on your machine because WebSphere stored its configurations in DB2, so you had to have all that overhead. It was just really slow. I just started using Tomcat for development because it was so much faster."

There was also the issue of IBM's response. "There was kind of a gauntlet laid down," says Joey Reynolds, senior systems administrator-supervisor at Weather.com. IBM's WebSphere developers were familiar with Weather.com's software code because they had worked closely with the Web site's IT team to resolve earlier performance problems. "They said, 'We don't think you guys can do this, and you'll end up staying with WebSphere and paying support,' " says Reynolds. (IBM declined to comment for this story.)

But the development staff was undaunted."There are tremendously bright individuals here, and to challenge them to go that little extra bit is a dangerous thing if you want to keep their business," Reynolds says.

Moreover, Weather.com developers had been using Tomcat and therefore, says Reynolds, "we had already seen that the open-source community was adept at answering our questions. It wasn't like we were blind."

The development team considered several open-source application servers, Cunningham says, including Resin from Caucho Technology Inc. and offerings from Hewlett-Packard Co. and GemStone Systems Inc. "At one point, I had three or four on my machine," he recalls.

But a majority of team members preferred Tomcat, so the group decided to pilot-test the software with a new version of the Web site's local activity page, which dynamically serves up weather data for selected cities. For the test, the team had configured the servers to switch back and forth between WebSphere and Tomcat.

"When we rolled out that page, we discovered Tomcat was significantly faster," recalls Badenell. "Because that page is close to 60 percent of our total page views, it was at that point that we decided we would go ahead and make the switch over to Tomcat. We were holding our breath, and it worked out, and we haven't turned back since."

The switch to Tomcat software and Intel-based commodity servers also enables the Web site to add capacity quickly and relatively inexpensively. "In our architecture, which is very flat, scalability comes by buying more machines and throwing more Web servers on them. It's much more cost-justifiable to add 30 percent more capacity by buying 12 more machines," says Tim Bolser, director of application development. "We don't have to write a check to IBM (for WebSphere licensing fees), and it gives us a lot more flexibility in terms of deploying assets."

"On a typical day, we do 30 million database calls (to the Web site's main Oracle database) for just the desktop application," says Agronow. "We're able to handle that with Tomcat and open-source because the infrastructure gives us that capability. All of the servers are created generically, so we can scale horizontally. As our capacity increases because downloads of the desktop application are increasing, we just add another generic box, and that adds capacity."

All told, Weather.com has 75 pure Web site servers, 12 servers supporting its desktop products and 20 servers to support miscellaneous requirements. It also has dozens of development and test servers, bringing the total number of servers to about 180.

The support factor

The site's software developers also are happy, says Bolser. "Part of what we like with open-source is you can look under the hood and see things," he says. "With commercial software, if there's a hole and it gets exposed, you're relying on the vendor to fix it, but if it's open-source, either the open-source community or you can plug the hole yourself. Because technical people are skeptical by nature, having more access to the code actually makes some people feel more comfortable and secure, rather than less."

Robin Bloor, an IT analyst at Baroudi Bloor in Arlington, Mass., says receiving a high level of support from open-source communities is typical, especially for what he calls "flagship" open-source products, such as Apache, Linux and Tomcat.

"The people who contribute to the creation of the product are an online community and continue to contribute to its support," Bloor says. "The person you talk to about support may even write a little piece of code for you for a very specific problem."

Looking ahead, Agronow says he wants to optimize the Tomcat software and Weather.com's overall server environment for Intel Corp.'s P4 processors. "If it was optimized, we'd get even better performance out of it. That's the one disappointment I have with Tomcat -- it doesn't seem to be optimized for the latest generation of processors. And we want speed. Speed is what gives us performance and increases capacity," he says.

Weather.com is also working on swapping out its Oracle database for the open-source MySQL.

Agronow says the IT team has clearly demonstrated that open-source makes sense for Weather.com. "It saves us money, and every time we did (a migration) we got more confident about the next one," he says.

And that confidence extends beyond the IT staff, Agronow says. "Now when I talk to senior management about moving from Oracle to MySQL they don't ask me, 'Are you sure?' " he says. "They ask me, 'When?' "

Side bars

Weather.com

Objective: Lower costs and increase efficiency by migrating to open-source software and commodity hardware for its Web-based IT infrastructure wherever possible.

Challenges: Dealing with initially skeptical executive management, rising to a vendor challenge that the project couldn't be done, testing and deploying open-source software at one of the world's 10 largest Web sites.

Payoff: Cut IT costs by one-third; increased Web site processing capacity by 30 percent.

Weather report: A migration timeline

March 2000: Weather.com deploys WebSphere 3.0.2 on Sun 420R Solaris servers as its Web site architecture.

December 2000: Replaces Netscape Enterprise with Apache.

June 2001: Migrates to WebSphere 3.5 running on Linux.

July - December 2001: Migrates from Sun 420R servers to Intel-based IBM xServer 330s.

Jan. 3, 2002: Performance suffers as a winter storm draws 18 million page views.

January 2002: Developers begin using Tomcat Web application server software.

June 2002: A new local activity page is launched; Tomcat replaces WebSphere.

September 2002: The site accommodates 25 million page views when Hurricane Isadore hits.

January 2004: The Web site sustains 55 million page views without degradation during a major snowstorm.

January 2004: Migration from Oracle database to MySQL begins.

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