Microsoft Unveils TerraServer Web Site

In late June, Microsoft Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and a host of partners officially unveiled the TerraServer Web site (, a commercial Web site built around Microsoft’s Commerce Server and forthcoming SQL Server 7.0. Aside from touting Microsoft’s ability to enable Internet commerce over the Web, Microsoft also used the occasion to trumpet the ability of its Windows NT operating system and SQL Server 7.0 database to scale to suit the demands of any enterprise environment.

"SQL Server 7.0 makes the TerraServer possible," claims Jim Ewel, SQL Server product manager with Microsoft. "It provides new support for massive, scalable databases, and for hosting these databases on the Web. The kind of application represented by TerraServer once required a supercomputer. Now it is possible with off-the-shelf software and hardware."

Microsoft initially demonstrated a TerraServer configuration during its May 1997 Scalability Day events, saying at the time that the TerraServer technology would become available at a later date.

Over a year later, TerraServer has arrived. Using TerraServer, customers can view more than 178 million aerial and satellite photos provided by the USGS and Aerial Images Inc. (Raleigh, N.C., Customers can also choose to purchase and download high-resolution images.

The TerraServer Web site is powered by a complement of Microsoft software and Compaq/Digital hardware. Aside from running the Enterprise Edition iterations of both Microsoft’s SQL Server 7.0 database and Windows NT 4.0 operating system, the TerraServer is supported on the hardware side by a single Compaq Digital AlphaServer 8400 with eight 400-MHz Alpha microprocessors and a 3.5-TB Compaq StorageWorks RAID subsystem. The AlphaServer 8400 can be expanded to 14 Alpha microprocessors.

Microsoft claims that TerraServer is the largest database available on the Internet, with approximately 1 TB of compressed data and 3 TB of uncompressed data.

IBM Corp. disputes this claim, however. According to IBM, Big Blue’s online patent database (, which contains the drawings and descriptions for all IBM patents issued since 1971, is the largest online database, with more than 1.5 TB of compressed data and 15 TB of uncompressed data.

Microsoft and partners say that the TerraServer Web site is already processing about 500,000 user sessions or 4 million hits in a day.

According to Microsoft’s Ewel, TerraServer should do much to dispel many of the scalability issues that have dogged Microsoft since it first began pushing Windows NT as a true enterprise-class operating system. "I think that it goes a long way towards demonstrating that we’re scalable for these kinds of multimedia databases," Ewel contends. "We think it goes a long way to showing people that we can handle the world’s largest applications."

If anything, however, TerraServer and the hoopla surrounding it have functioned thus far to raise questions about the scalability of both the Windows NT operating system and SQL Server 7.0. After the TerraServer site was officially unveiled, many surfers attempting to access the online database were greeted with messages such as "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." Users also reported not being able to connect to the TerraServer site at all, with http requests timing out.

Microsoft attributed the problems to unanticipated demand and indicated that it was installing additional servers to handle the load -- but the damage had already been done.

"It's embarrassing to open a database like TerraServer up for people to look at only to find that it's not scalable enough to support the workload," acknowledges Dan Kusnetzky, program director of operating environments and serverware programs with International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.). For his part, Kusnetzky questions the veracity of Microsoft's claim that TerraServer is the largest online datastore and further indicates that TerraServer's initial availability problems appear as an embarrassing public relations blunder for Microsoft. "That's certainly a difficult marketing situation that the folks at Microsoft will have to work out in some way," he maintains.