MSNBC Deploys Datacenter Server as Web Server

One of thefirst Windows 2000 Datacenter Server deployments to be publicly discussed putsMicrosoft Corp.’s new high-end operating system in a surprising spot in anenterprise infrastructure.

At a DatacenterServer reviewers’ workshop last month at Microsoft's ( Redmondheadquarters, officials described a conservative early deployment at the newssite MSNBC ( that Microsoft jointly operates with NBC.

Instead ofanchoring the news site’s three back-end SQL Server databases, though,Microsoft and MSNBC installed Datacenter Server as a front-end Web server.

“When wefirst started this project, there was some skepticism: Is Datacenter ready forWeb servers?” admitted Brett Brewer, program manager at Microsoft who workswith dot-com accounts in the Joint Development Program.

The designspecifications for Datacenter, which Microsoft plans to officially launch laterthis month, usually conjures up images of database servers with support for upto 32 processors, 64 GB of RAM, four-node clustering, and the capability tobypass the TCP/IP stack for improved local cluster performance.

Windows2000 Advanced Server has been positioned as the high-volume Web server of theWindows 2000 family. Still, Microsoft left open the possibility of Datacenteras Web server by including its IP load balancing software, called Network LoadBalancing (NLB), in the operating system. NLB is available only in AdvancedServer and Datacenter Server.

MSNBC’sinfrastructure is set up with about 50 Web servers, a mixture of two-processorand four-processor Compaq Computer Corp. ( serversrunning Windows 2000 Advanced Server. Those servers are being balanced acrosseight clusters in groups of about six servers per cluster, Brewer says. Thesite is different from Microsoft’s traditional three-tier Web farm architecturediagram. MSNBC runs its COM+ application servers on the Web servers, so thesite runs on two-tiers: Web servers and database servers.

Whilehaving a lot of Web servers does not necessarily constitute a problem, Brewersays the management of those servers with the 24-hour news cyclecontent-related replication traffic is challenging. Some of those headachesseem a natural fit for Microsoft’s Application Center 2000 management softwareslated for release at the same time as Datacenter Server, but MSNBC also wantedto build in the capacity to provide site visitors with more audio/visualstreaming.

“MSNBC hasso much complexity,” says David Mahlum, senior Web architect at MSNBC andMSNBC’s manager of the JDP Datacenter project. “We have wire feeds, we havevideo feeds, TV stuff, integrated programs, online voting. The more complexityyou can take out of those things, the better it is.”

Mahlum alsodefined the challenge of a news site. “You never know when a news storybreaks,” he says. “You have no idea when that load’s going to hit your Webfarm.”

Microsoft’sBrewer called the solution worked out between Microsoft and MSNBC, “Scale outwith bigger boxes.” The short-term project goal is to reduce the number ofMSNBC’s Web servers by about 66 percent to 16 Web servers running DatacenterServer.

Initially,MSNBC deployed one clustered pair of Datacenter-based Web servers. They areCompaq ProLiant 8500 servers, each with eight 550-MHz Pentium III Xeonprocessors, 4 GB of memory, and 18 GB of internal disk.

Theclustered pair has been running since early July. “You might have already usedDatacenter and not realized it,” Brewer says. With some “unique tuning,” theDatacenter boxes showed a linear performance increase over MSNBC’s Windows 2000Advanced Server boxes, Brewer says.

Eventually,plans for the site include migrating the three back-end databases to DatacenterServer in a three-node failover cluster configuration and using DatacenterServer’s WinSock Direct Path capabilities for bypassing the TCP/IP stack toaccelerate communications between the servers. MSNBC is also looking to upgradeits Web servers to 16- and 32-processor machines as they become available.

Windows2000 Advanced Server can be run on eight-processor machines, althoughDatacenter Server is designed to be more reliable at this number, plus hardwareOEMs such as Compaq must guarantee a minimum uptime package of 99.9 percentwith Datacenter Server. Datacenter Server will not be available for sale offthe shelf. It must be purchased with a complete system from one of about adozen OEMs.

“Thebiggest focus of the JDP this time is validation of the support model,” Brewersays. The MSNBC deployment found two bugs prior to last month’s Release toManufacturing of Datacenter Server, he said.