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Linux is in the forecast for weather.com

LinuxWorld

(IDG) -- The problem with weather is that no one can do anything about it. That's an advantage for weather.com, the Weather Channel's Website because it means everyone from golfers to travelers is intensely interested in what the weather will be. When weather.com picked Linux to replace Sun Solaris on the image servers on its site, it did so because of its advantages and a couple of its disadvantages as well.

The disadvantage -- that Linux started as an low-cost, amateur operating system among students and computer enthusiasts -- was a major plus for weather.com, according to Mark Ryan, chief technology officer for the Weather Channel Enterprises. It meant that talented young programmers were familiar with Linux. That was in contrast to Sun Solaris, which weather.com had been using to serve images.

"Just about every graduate coming out of college has Linux experience at some level," Ryan says. "Not unlike other communities like Silicon Valley and New York where there are large volumes of incubators for business, Solaris and Sun skills are a very tight market," Ryan says of the Atlanta, Ga., area where weather.com is located. "We had to decide whether to stay in that market where those skill sets were hard to come by or diversify into alternate strategies."

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According to Daniel Frye, IBM's program director for Linux technology in Somers, N.Y., that can have a distinct impact on an organization's costs. "The total cost of ownership is being impacted," he says. "Not only the price of boxes but also in retention of skills." The skills situation is a distinct turnaround that is becoming increasingly common as Linux replaces Solaris as the educational version of Unix. "For a long time, people [were] coming out of school with Solaris skills," Frye says. "Now we're seeing a sea change in what people are doing in college." From its days of being an obscure Unix substitute, Linux has grown to become the standard educational operating system. That circumstance has had a major impact on talent availability. Now nearly everyone has at least been exposed to Linux, and some programmers have used it throughout their college careers.

The other disadvantage of Linux that helped sell it to weather.com is the availability of open source support. "There are a large volume of forums where I can dial in and say I had problems with my Linux system and get back 20 or 30 answers in ten minutes," he says. "Support is very good in the Linux environment."

Good support is important because weather.com is a round-the-clock site that gets between 5 and 30 million hits a day. "It's not dissimilar to The Weather Channel where when someone signs on, they don't want to see a blank screen," Ryan says. "They want to see what the weather is for their local community." weather.com is consistently rated as one of the top five sites in the news, entertainment, and information category by Media Metrix, which tracks the popularity of Websites. Obviously if there is a problem, weather.com needs to fix it fast.

All that weather information serves as a magnet to draw people to chat rooms, a weather-related photo gallery (complete with a weather photo of the week), a news feed and, of course, onsite advertising. The company is looking at adding even more services and more specialized information as a way of growing its revenues.

weather.com faces enormous technical challenges. For one thing, the site gives a whole new meaning to the phrase graphics intensive. Much of weather.com's data consists of images such as maps, satellite photographs, and movies of cloud movements. Since the images are updated at least every 15 minutes, the site must handle millions of new images every day. Not only is the number of daily images enormous but the number of page views can vary from around five million on a typical day to as many as 30 million when a hurricane approaches the United States.

weather.com's customers are especially interested in satellite movies or images showing the storm's development and movement. "Our community very much loves to see the local looper that allows them to see how weather patterns are traversing across their area," Ryan notes. Of course those loops are image intensive, and that puts even more load on the servers.

Because weather.com's demand is I/O intensive, the company has chosen to split its serving job among a number of systems in a load-balanced architecture. The ability to add servers as needed and economically is also important. That combination is why the company decided to switch images from Sun servers running Solaris to IBM Netfinity boxes running Linux. That included the low cost and the relatively fine granularity offered by Linux image servers. "As I incrementally add servers horizontally to a load-balanced environment, the price for additional capacity is less," Ryan says. "If I add one server for $10,000 versus one for $25,000 or $50,000, it makes a difference."

The Netfinity servers weather.com uses are built around 700 MHz Intel processors. Because of the importance of I/O, the servers are run as standalone units rather than clustered. They are geographically distributed into pools of servers on the east and west coasts in facilities maintained by Exodus Communications.

"Since we are a very image-intensive delivery mechanism, Linux will be the platform of choice for serving up all those images," Ryan says. "We believe we have enough capacity to meet the industry standard of eight seconds of delivery time up to around 30 million page views per day."

However, not all weather.com's content is images. Information, such as weather data, that is stored relationally will remain on Sun systems running Solaris.

weather.com's plans for the future will only increase the demand on its servers. For one thing, weather.com wants to display data for smaller chunks of the country. "Instead of getting the southeast, they might see Georgia. Or instead of Georgia, they might see Atlanta. Or instead of Atlanta, they might see Marietta (a suburb of Atlanta)," Ryan says. Providing that kind of detail obviously means more images -- and more load on the servers. For another, the company sees basic weather information as a springboard for all kinds of related information services, from lists of restaurants in local areas to cultural events to the weather on local golf courses.

"In the future we're going to try to relationalize all the information so when you sign on, you tell the system you're a golfer in Atlanta, [and] it will be able to present you with golf attractions in Atlanta. If you travel primarily in Atlanta and L.A., we'll be able to tell you about other things you might be interested in," Ryan says.

Another driver for capacity growth is the growing importance of wireless and other means of access. "We're in the process of making our information available through whatever medium [the customers] want," says Ryan. "Whether it's pagers, cell phones, Palm 7, or whatever. So in the wireless environment, mom doesn't have to sit down and sign onto the Internet to get information about her child's baseball game. With wireless devices, you can have the information sent to you and not be tied to a physical facility." The growth of wireless delivery offers other opportunities to weather.com as well as putting additional demands on server capacity.

Linux is going to be an integral part of the expansion. "We wanted something that was going to be state of the industry over time," Ryan says. "We believe open source is where the industry is headed."




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