Who says open source can’t measure up to commercial software for mission-critical applications? Far from being a mere quick fix or low-cost alternative, open source software is helping real-world companies solve their most pressing IT problems.
Perhaps no more dramatic example exists than pioneering social networking site Friendster. When Friendster launched in March 2003, no one imagined that within two years the site would reach 60 million page views per day. Unfortunately, as the site’s traffic increased, so did its performance issues. The problem, in essence, was that Friendster had unexpectedly become a phenomenon.
“When I arrived it was a crisis point — absolutely, all day, every day,” says Chris Lunt, Friendster’s director of engineering, who joined the company in the summer of 2003. At that time, he says, Friendster’s architecture was nearly breaking beneath the traffic load.
“[Friendster] had taken off much faster than anyone could anticipate,” Lunt says. “We had our millionth user [when] the site had been up only six months. The thing was overwhelmed.”
Friendster’s performance problems needed to be solved, fast. Rather than stick to the paved road of commercial software, however, the company’s engineers took a major risk by betting on the open source application stack known as LAMP, which consists of — and is named for — the Linux OS, Apache Web server, MySQL database, and PHP (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor) scripting language.
Fortunately, that gamble paid off. LAMP not only allowed Friendster’s engineers to scale the site’s architecture to address its unwieldy growth, but along the way, they implemented creative configurations that brought the LAMP technologies themselves to a new level.
Brought to its knees
In founding Friendster, Chairman Jonathan Abrams sought to create an online network through which friends could connect with friends. When it launched, the service was powered by a Java back end running on Apache Tomcat servers with a MySQL database. That original architecture was soon crushed by the coming load of traffic.
During the summer of 2003, Friendster was plagued by performance issues. Often, the millions of users pounding the site where unable to access it, and when they could, results were inconsistent from page to page. User profile changes failed to show up because of lags in the distributed architecture, and messages were dropped.
“If you had a huge network [of friends], you couldn’t search it because just building your list and comparing to the network took longer than the browser would allow you to wait,” says Dathan Pattishall, senior database and software engineer at Friendster. Pattishall joined the company in November 2003 to tackle the site’s database issues.
Tomcat and Java weren’t the problem so much as the fact that the site’s back end was not architected to accommodate millions of users. Friendster had grown to such a huge extent that simply throwing more hardware at the problem wasn’t enough. The site had to be re-engineered to make better use of the hardware and applications.
Of course, that was easier said than done. At the time, Friendster’s IT team consisted of two engineers, and the challenges they faced were daunting.
“Developing for your desktop is one thing, but when [your site needs to support] millions of hits a day, it is a different story,” Lunt says.