Will It Scale?

That was the question asked of the four panelists on Monday’s Scalability Boot Camp Panel at South by Southwest. The panelists, who represented various consumer sites, all said that at some point in their online ventures the answer to that question was no. As a result they’ve ended up learning how to build network architectures that can support a large number of users.

One way (are you listening Yahoo?) was to restrict launches by making them available to a limited amount of people over a fixed period of time, because no one server can handle all the users of a site hopping on all at once. Another was to figure out what your users want before trying to figure out your network architecture. Blaine Cook of Twitter confessed that when they launched their service, no one was sure what people would use it for, calling it the worst idea ever.

All the talk about failure led to a discussion about how scalability problems hurt or enhance a company’s reputation. Cook said the press mentions of Twitter’s downtime as a plus, but the irritated users were obviously a minus. Sandy Jen, co-founder of IM service Meebo, echoed comments made by Jakob Heuser of Gaia Online when she talked about letting users know what’s going on while the site is down.

She also emphasized the importance of getting the business side involved with the technical and operations side. “No feature gets out the door without talking to operations” at Meebo, she said.

The audience members seemed most concerned in how to get the business side talking about scalability issues, while the panelists, all of whom had technical backgrounds, talked about focusing on the user experience and trying to translate down time into money. All good advice, but I imagine that conversation is much easier to have at a startup led by a tech-savvy CEO.


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