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Microsoft pictures the world

The giant launches a site with aerial images of the planet taken from satellites more than 100 miles above the earth.

Until today, the World Wide Web has been missing one thing: the world.

But Microsoft has remedied that small omission with its new TerraServer site. Here, Web surfers can access close-ups of the planet taken from satellites more than 100 miles above the earth, in addition to images collected from planes a mere 25,000 up.

Satellite images are culled from SPIN-2, a joint venture between the American firm Aerial Images and the Russian Space Agency. Other images come from the U.S. Geological Survey.

While some may interpret the project as a sign of the Redmond, Washington-based software firm's global ambitions, company executives profess a more down-to-earth motivation for launching the site.

"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," explained Jim Ewel, group product manager for Microsoft's SQL Server, which powers the site. "We wanted to show people we could run these very scalable systems."

The TerraServer runs on Windows NT Server 4.0, Enterprise Edition, and Microsoft's SQL Server 7.0, Enterprise Edition. SQL Version 7.0 will be released later this year, according to Ewel.

The TerraServer is no meager Web site. With more than 1 terabyte (or one trillion bytes), it features what Microsoft is billing the largest database on the Web.

In addition to showing what its software can do, the company also wanted the experience of operating and building a system of that scale, said Ewel. Working out the kinks has inspired a number of refinements in the company's server software over the past year.

In one example, Microsoft discovered that tape robots--which help automate backing up a system that requires 50 back-up tapes--lacked drivers that supported the company's Windows NT operating system. As a result, Microsoft partners Legato and Storagetek wrote those drivers.

The TerraServer's images feature 1-meter resolution, which means that each pixel can represent images as small as a meter. That means the different buildings and cars found on the Microsoft campus are discernible, but chief executive Bill Gates is not.

The TerraServer's coverage is far from complete. Current images cover about 30 percent of the United States, as well as some pictures of Europe and other areas. Only a fraction of the earth's surface is represented, but that is partly because of the predominance of oceans and polar ice on the earth's surface.

"Oceans make up about 75 percent, and the polar ice caps another 10 percent, and we didn't think those would be so interesting," said Ewel.

Microsoft isn't just showing the world its server software with the TerraServer. Its Site Server Commerce Edition e-commerce suite will let users buy prints of individual images. An 8 1/2 inch by 11 inch print will cost about $13, and a poster-sized image will cost about $40. Proceeds will go to Kodak, the USGS, and Aerial Images.

Microsoft isn't the only one interested in picturing the world on the Web. Earlier this year, Vice President Al Gore proposed the construction of a satellite that would send continuous live images of Earth to a Web site to show the movement of weather systems and other phenomena. That site would provide fresher updates, but would lack the ability to zero in on its subject.