Vamshidhar Kommineni

April 18, 2007

Scalability of web services

Filed under: Technology — Vamshi @ 6:55 am

In a very timely fashion, here are two Slashdot posts about the fragility of our networked existence:

Blackberry network is down

Turbo Tax melts down on Tax day

I’ve never used Blackberry but have always wondered about the scalability given that corporate email gets routed through their central servers to cell phone providers. I think there is still communication with a centralized environment in the case of their BES servers. A costly lesson learned about keeping your environment decentralized and scalable. I’m not an expert, but I think getting mail on your Windows Mobile phone from Exchange server doesn’t suffer from the same centralization problem (I could be wrong, I’m just an end user and have no idea about the architecture).

The other one is going to cost Turbo Tax a lot of customers and result in a bunch of negative PR (and probably some fun postmortem meetings behind the scenes). Don’t get me wrong; I love Turbo Tax. I’ve used it to do my taxes since 1999 and can’t imagine the dark days when people were forced to navigate tax forms before they came along and simplified it. Sure, you can blame the customers who waited till the last evening to submit their taxes, but customers will be customers (and they’re always right). Turbo Tax is a very state heavy web application (lots of data going back and forth from a central data store), so depending on how it is architected, there are going to be some painful choke points. That’s one system I’d love to learn more about.

Failures like these are why good design is critical in the "Web 2.0" world. Designing a web service for fault tolerance and scalability are hard problems. It’s also why services like Amazon’s S3 and EC2 make for a very compelling scenario. Imagine infrastructure, fault tolerance and scalability on the cheap with all the heavy lifting done by teams of people that understand how to design these systems without everyone putting up a web property having to provision and deal with the problems themselves.

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