Britannica site falters

Britannica.com's IT staff worked into the weekend to triple the Web site's server capacity after record traffic brought it down on its first day of operation.

Britannica.com’s IT staff worked into the weekend to triple the Web site’s server capacity after record traffic brought it down on its first day of operation.

Observers said the snafu presents valuable advice to any company launching an e-commerce site: You can never have too much server capacity.

Hours after Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica announced its new, free Web content Tuesday, the site faltered. Until now, the company’s eb.com site had charged a $5 monthly subscription fee and the Web site contained only encyclopedia content.

The new site features encyclopedia text plus news articles from 80 newspapers and magazines, as well as links to related Web sites.

Some Britannica.com visitors reported they couldn’t reach the site at all, while others reached the site but couldn’t conduct searches.

“We experienced traffic on the first day of about 20 times normal capacity,” said Britannica spokesman Kent Devereaux. “We thought we would see a huge spike [after the announcement] and then it would decrease. At about 3 p.m., [traffic] was still going up, so we made a decision to pull down the servers.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica’s reference Web sites have averaged 30 million page views per month, he said.

Project leaders spent weeks planning for the Britannica.com launch. For reliability and performance reasons, the company split its servers among three locations — Chicago, Herndon, Va., and Sunnyvale, Calif. “If one goes down, it won’t affect the other,” said Mike Willett, a project manager in quality assurance.

Testing tools were used to simulate data loads against various server arrangements at high-traffic volumes (see story above). On the day of the launch, Devereaux said, backup servers were standing by, but they hadn’t been configured yet.

CEO Don Yannias apologized for the outage in a letter on the site. “In many ways we have truly been victims of our own success. We had no idea that this volume of traffic would be achieved so quickly,” he said.

Could the snafu have been prevented?

Vernon Keenan, Internet analyst at Keenan Vision in San Francisco, said it’s hard to simulate in tests real-world latency and spikes in traffic, but Britannica could have been better prepared. “Somebody who has a venerable brand that doesn’t think people are going to be curious to see what they’re doing on the Internet is a little clueless,” he said.

Carol Skiwa contributed to this article.

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