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Texas A&M athletics gets a grip on Web site traffic overload

Staff members at Texas A&M University thought they could handle Web traffic just fine. Then football season started.

The Feb. 18 college basketball showdown between the Texas A&M Aggies and the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns promises to be a big night for ESPN.

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But it will be another big test for AggieAthletics.com, A&M's sports Web site. Fans of both nationally ranked teams will head to the site during the game for stats, updates and links to live video feeds.

Aggie webmasters are confident their Web site can handle the traffic load for Monday's big game -- but that wasn't the case two seasons ago, when a frenzy of football madness created havoc for the supporting server infrastructure.

It used to be the Aggies suited up for a football game, and AggieAthletics.com buckled at the knees. The college pigskin is a big deal in Texas, and 50,000 fans hitting 3 million Web pages per hour were too many for the site's server. Halftime, for example, would see the site handling 700 sessions at any given moment. Ultimately, no one could get in to see it.


Watch Texas A&M beat Texas with a buzzer beater in this March 2006 game.
"We're a major Division I NCAA program. Service is the key for us," said Drew Martin, assistant athletic director for branding and creative development at the College Station, Texas, university. "We want to provide the best service for our fans we can possibly give.

"Unfortunately -- well, fortunately -- we're very, very popular, and a lot of people want to look at us," he said. Running AggieAthletics.com is one of Martin's responsibilities, though he does not have an IT background. Working through the Web traffic problems, he relied on the experience of his staff, as well as other IT staff in the university, to make purchasing decisions.

A&M realized the athletics site had grown to a point where load balancing was needed. The university is one of a few nationwide to host its own athletics site. Doing that allows staff there more creative control over content, but it left the IT staff solving the Web traffic problem in a rush.

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The crashing was out of control during the 2006 football season. Things came to a head when lightning forced a home game delay one weekend. The university promised updates on AggieAthletics.com. And fans couldn't wait for the game to start.

"The students were in their dorm rooms hitting the Web site, finding out when they could return," A&M systems analyst Karl Katzke said. "I couldn't hit the Web site from my office." Katzke headed up the Web site revamp project.

The catastrophe left Katzke and the six other IT staffers in the athletics department scrambling to fix the problem. A temporary fix came by unloading video to CSTV, which hosts media for college athletics websites. That eased the traffic overload.

They also the hardware route, purchased what they thought they needed "and simply slammed together the biggest, baddest box we could," Katzke said.

It didn't work.

"That was definitely a stress test, and we couldn't handle the stress test," Katzke said.

Next, they tried using a reverse proxy server to lighten the load. Then they tried offloading less-popular pages to another server. Still, the site kept crashing.

"Our bottleneck was simply information overload," Katzke said. "We tried just about everything from a tactical point of view that we could, and then what it came down to was we simply needed more servers behind it."

But that had to happen on a budget. Working with $50,000, the department went shopping for a load balancer that would alternate page requests among three different servers. With a cost-conscious eye, the group decided on Equalizer E450si load balancers from San Jose, Calif.-based Coyote Point Systems Inc.

"That was definitely a stress test, and we couldn't handle the stress test."
Karl Katzke, systems analyst
Texas A&M

At about $5,000 each, the load balancers were priced low enough for A&M to buy two, as well as three new servers and a new database server, all set up in hot failover mode. The do-it-yourself option would have been to go the open source route, using Linux Virtual Server or a comparable program.

But the support and vendor guarantee that came with the Coyote Point balancers was a must for a university with such a popular athletics program, Katzke said.

The 2007 football season was a tough one for the Aggies, who finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12 Conference. September brought news that head coach Dennis Franchione had been distributing an unauthorized newsletter detailing player injuries to donors paying $1,200 annually. The ensuing controversy, coupled with the team's below-average performance, led to Franchione's resignation in November.

But the Web site didn't crash. And when the university decided to host 200 MB of pdf documents detailing its investigation into the newsletters, 6,000 curious football fans downloaded them in the first week. The athletics Web site hosted a link to the files, which were the first to be stored on servers running with the load balancers.

"We got into it and we experienced a little bit of difficulty, but some of that is learning a new system and getting things transferred over to the new servers and the clusters," Martin said.

Not everything has been moved to the new servers yet, so Martin is hesitant to declare success right away. Staff at the university are building a new Web site that will eventually be hosted on servers used with the load balancers. But the balancers were used for a student basketball ticket lottery and did make it through National Signing Day last week, the day that high school football players can first commit to a school. Annually, AggieAthletics.com sees more traffic on signing day than any other day. But the site made it through, Martin said, with "absolutely no problems."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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