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Microsoft photo site overwhelmed

The site set up to show the scalability of Microsoft's database and Web servers is overcome with users, locking many out.

After promising the world, a red-faced Microsoft is finding itself unable to deliver.

The company yesterday launched its TerraServer site, a database of finely detailed photographs of planet Earth taken from space and from the air. The point of the site, according to Microsoft, was to demonstrate the scalability of its database and Web servers.

"We wanted to demonstrate to customers that we could run a very large system on the Internet 7 days a week, 24 hours a day," Microsoft's Jim Ewel told NEWS.COM yesterday on the site's debut. "We wanted to show people we could run these very scalable systems."

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the plan appears to have backfired as user demand has overwhelmed the system's capacity to respond. Web surfers trying to access the site have met with the following error message:

"HTTP Error 403/403.9 Access Forbidden: Too many users are connected/This error can be caused if the Web server is busy and cannot process your request due to heavy traffic. Please try to connect again later."

Would-be visitors to the site have suggested that Microsoft's technical claims do not rest on terra firma.

"If Microsoft was out to prove that NT can host ambitious Web sites, they've only provided ammunition for Sun," noted one NEWS.COM reader, referring to Web server software provider and Microsoft competitor Sun Microsystems.

In newsgroups, some appeared to derive satisfaction from Microsoft's blunder.

"Oh, I love this," wrote a participant in the "alt.dur.general" newsgroup. Microsoft is "billing this as the biggest database on the Web...Sadly when I tried it, it er...refused connections. It said, 'Too many ppl connecting'...Then it started telling me the database was temporarily unavailable, then it stopped actually connecting to the server at all. I guess it fell over...*grin*."

Microsoft ascribed its TerraServer difficulties to unexpectedly high demand for access.

"We've gotten a hell of a lot more interest than we had anticipated," explained Doug Leland, lead product manager for Microsoft's SQL (pronounced "sequel") server, which runs the TerraServer database. "We're really a victim of our own success here."

Leland termed the setback "disappointing," but noted that the database server, as opposed to the Web servers, was running at between 30 percent and 40 percent of capacity. The trouble, he said, was that Microsoft hadn't allocated enough Web server power to the site.

"We initially predicted about 1 million hits per day," Leland explained. "And we allocated the number of severs according to that number. In the past 24 hours we've added two additional servers, bringing us to six, which according to our capacity planning lets us handle about 6 million hits per day."

The trouble, however, is that Microsoft has gotten closer to 8 million hits in the last 24 hours. The company is adding between two and four additional Web servers in anticipation of between 8 million and 10 million hits per day.

"This is not a software or hardware issue," Leland said. "It's just a capacity planning issue."

TerraServer runs Windows NT Server and Internet Information Server, NT's Web server software.

Leland emphasized that the database, which runs on a prerelease version of Microsoft's SQL Server 7, is performing well.

"This is a demonstration primarily of Microsoft's database products," Leland said. "What we are telling the market here is that we have the largest database on the Internet, and we're maintaining a database that is over 1 terabyte in size. This is not intentionally a demonstration of Internet connections."

The TerraServer is scheduled to be upgraded to meet demand by tomorrow, according to Leland.