New legs for Boston Marathon servers

* Technology from F5 Networks helps speed access to online marathon information

This week roughly 24,000 athletes competed in the 111th Boston Marathon -- and an estimated 40 times as many Internet users surfed to the marathon organizer’s Web site during the six-hour event.

To keep up with the Web traffic, the Boston Athletic Association used WAN optimization equipment donated by F5 Networks, including the vendor’s BIG-IP traffic-control systems and FirePass SSL VPN appliances.

The BAA’s race Web site lets visitors track racers along the marathon route in real time. Athletes carried radio frequency identification (RFID) chips attached to their shoelaces that transmitted location information as the athletes passed designated milestones. For online viewers, the BAA broadcast every 5-kilometer split to its Web site. Family and friends could track a participant’s progress by logging in and entering the athlete’s name or bib number.

(The BAA also let athletes register up to three wireless devices or e-mail addresses, to which alerts were broadcast as a runner passed the 10-kilometer, 1/2 marathon, 30-kilometer and finish line.)

In early estimates, the BAA was predicting some 950,000 visitors would generate 10 million page views during the marathon.

“A lot of people would like to attend the marathon in person, but can’t. The Boston Marathon’s Web site provides a way for people everywhere to share in the excitement,” said Guy Morse, executive director of the BAA, in a statement. “Thanks to F5, fans worldwide can simultaneously track runners throughout the marathon in a fast, reliable manner.”

To keep the race site pumping, F5 donated equipment and services. It’s the first time the marathon Web site used application delivery networking products, according to the vendor.

Specifically, F5 provided two BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) systems to secure, accelerate and deliver Web applications. Among the features used are dynamic caching and HTTP compression, firewall services and iRules commands to monitor Web site traffic and data. In addition, F5 provided two FirePass SSL VPN systems to enable secure, remote administration of the BIG-IP LTM appliances.

“Initially we are doing only the race day site, but there are plans to extend to other BAA events and event registration,” says Craig Hovey, solution engineer for F5 Networks. “The equipment we donated was sized to support 3-5 years of site enhancements.”

In addition to donating the gear, F5 donated three years of premium support, plus network and application delivery consulting that covers architecture, routing, network firewall, secure remote access and Web caching, Hovey says.

Consultants from F5 and server vendor HP were present in a data center near Boston for four days before the race and all of race day to be “physically with the equipment should any issues arise,” Hovey says. Going forward, “we expect to be directly involved as the sites evolve from year to year,” he says.

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