The Perils of Popularity

How can you tell your favorite website has gotten too popular for its own good?  One clue is the flood of inane comments that come before substantive contributions, but the clearest sign is how much the delivery of the content slows down.  A low traffic site can run at high speeds for just a few bucks a month, but when you start talking about big traffic the cost of delivering all that data and running all of those scripts starts to explode.

See, this wasn’t nearly as much of a problem back in the day of static HTML websites.  The actual data coming off a webpage isn’t very significant compared to the bandwidth available in 2009.  The problem is in those scripts:  the CPU of the server actually has to call up databases, pull together strings in predefined algorithmic orders, and figure out which task comes next.  This is where the slowdown comes in, your request is going to have to wait in line for the few seconds of upload or download you wanted.

Now unfortunately, processors have been stuck around 3 GHz now for a while.  Temperatures have hit the ceiling and we’re still a few years out from the nano and carbon-based solutions that can bring us to the next level of processing power.  All the bandwidth expansion between now and then isn’t going to help popular sites with speed issues, only investment in more and more processor farms.

If you’re targetting small traffic and specific phrases to sell a product or market your existing brand, this probably won’t come into your hosting calculations.  But when a site, especially a social one or a huge shopping database, starts to become the next big thing, you can expect a whole lot of slowdowns and downtime while they realize exactly what kind of hosting they really need.

Twitter made the fail whale famous, and now Reddit is starting to crash and burn every few minutes.  To think, I expected to laze my day away reading interesting links and sarcastic comments only to discover too many others had the exact same plan!

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