Opteron servers handle growth of Weather.com

Traffic to Weather.com, the Internet arm of cable television's The Weather Channel, has been snowballing, as the company's management continues to push for more robust and customized services. Those facts are keeping Dan Agronow, the Web site's vice president of technology, on his toes as he searches for the best infrastructure to support the content, without breaking the bank.

Traffic to Weather.com, the Internet arm of cable television's The Weather Channel, has been snowballing, as the company's management continues to push for more robust and customized services.

Those facts are keeping Dan Agronow, the Web site's vice president of technology, on his toes as he searches for the best infrastructure to support the content, without breaking the bank.

It's Agronow's never-ending quest for "the best price-performance" that led him to be one of the first IT executives to deploy 32-/64-bit Opteron servers to run a database application. Advanced Micro Device's (AMD) multi-platform chip has been quick to take off in the year since it was introduced, but in most cases servers based on the microprocessor have made their way into high-performance computing deployments, not into corporate data centers, IDC researchers say.

According to IDC, the number of Opteron servers shipped last year doubled each quarter, with some 35,000 Opteron-based systems shipping in 2003 after AMD introduced the chip on April 22. Still, that represents a small fraction of the x86 market, which Intel dominates.

While Opteron is now being targeted at high-end computing, analysts note that when IBM became the first major systems vendor to roll out an Opteron-based server last summer - since then HP and Sun also have introduced Opteron systems - it targeted the box at the same market. It's those IBM eServer 325 systems that Atlanta's weather.com now is using to run its Oracle 8i database.

The Opteron servers give the Web site the capacity it needs to deliver increasingly customized information, as well as handle spikes during severe weather events. The site averages 18 million unique visitors per month, but during a winter storm in January, for example, about 7 million unique visitors accessed the site in one day. In the past few months, the number of visitors has been higher than normal, with about 25 million visitors in March.

Weather.com continues to roll out customized services, meaning more database queries. In April, for example, it began offering customized home pages so that visitors could view weather for up to 10 cities and for specific dates when they log on to the Web site.

"It's important for us to make sure we have the capacity to deliver all of the relevant information and not just when there is a severe weather event," Agronow says. "We want to make sure that everyone can get their weather any time."

He concedes that he was a bit cautious before deciding to put the eServer 325 systems into production earlier this year because it was a new platform from AMD, which is not typically considered an enterprise server chip maker.

"At that time we wanted to test a variety of platforms from different vendors and to us it's important that we can see it in production. IBM let us have [an Opteron] unit that we actually put in production so we could do an apples-to-apples comparison," Agronow says.

He liked what he saw.

"Here was a two-way [Opteron server], and it performed at about 25% higher capacity than the four-way IBM [Intel Pentium III Xeon]," Agronow says. "There's a significant price difference between a four-way and a dual CPU server."

He wouldn't be specific about savings.

Agronow is currently only using the 32-bit capabilities of the Opteron box, but says that the transition to 64-bit computing - when applications demand it - will be easy. That's because the Opteron chip is built on the same x86 architecture that runs 32-bit applications. Intel's 64-bit Itanium, on the other hand, requires that software be rewritten to take the greatest advantage of the 64-bit platform.

"Itanium is a whole different architecture, so you have to weigh that into the price/performance equation," says Agronow, who notes that so far he hasn't seen any compelling reason to move to Itanium. "But that's why the Intel 64-bit extensions are very interesting."

Earlier this year, Intel announced that it too would roll out 64-bit extension technology for its x86 processors, with the first 32-/64-bit Xeon chip expected to be introduced in the next few months. HP, IBM and Dell have all said they will ship servers based on the processor, code-named Nocona.

"It gives us another option," Agronow says. "Any time there are multiple options and multiple vendors, it helps to drive the price down, and I'm pretty much focused on cost."

He's also focused on performance. Today, Agronow is testing a number of Opteron-based systems from vendors such as HP and Rackable Systems as he prepares to migrate his MySQL open source database to a 64-bit environment. While the Oracle database handles most of the data associated with the Web site, the MySQL database, currently on a Dell 1750 platform, handles information for weather.com's Desktop Weather. This service delivers continuous weather information, including hourly temperatures and weather alerts directly to subscribers' desktops.

"All the queries for that application, which is really taking off, come off of MySQL," he says. "We think there are other applications where bigger caches and the better memory latency are going to help the performance and capacity of our applications. So we're looking at [Opteron and Intel's Extended Memory 64 Technology] for different areas."

For weather.com, Opteron and Intel's EM64T (which will be incorporated into Nocona) are a logical next step in its effort to cut costs and boost performance by running standards-based hardware and open source software, which gives Agronow the flexibility to switch vendors and take advantage of better prices. Four years ago things looked very different in weather.com's data center: It was 100% Sun and Solaris.

When the Sun equipment lease expired, Agronow transitioned the data center to IBM xSeries servers running SuSE Linux, and cut his IT bill by about two-thirds in the process. Late last year, he took advantage of the expiring IBM lease and moved to dual-processor Dell 1750 servers, cutting costs even more. He wouldn't say how much was saved.

Also in the past few years, Agronow began transitioning all of his commercial software to open source products, moving from NetScape Enterprise to the Apache Web server and from the WebSphere application server to Tomcat.

This year, the big project is to migrate off of the Oracle database, which handles most of the data for the Web site, to MySQL.

"As long as you have a good staff, and I have an excellent staff, it is amazingly not difficult to move to open source," he says. "When I talk with my peers, one thing that surprises me is that they are concerned about going to open source. I've already done it. I didn't find it risky. There were no major showstoppers or gotchas that occurred. If you're willing to do the right due diligence and test your applications, run them in production - and the same thing goes for bringing in a new platform like the Opteron - then the transition can be very smooth."

Sunny skies

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