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Metcalfe on the Womplex

July 1, 1996

Can IBM’s Womplex handle Internet traffic of Olympian proportions?

In a couple of weeks, millions of us from around the world will be glued to our Internet sets watching. Hits at the Olympics Web site have already ramped past 250,000 per day. Will all this multimedia hyperlinking to the Olympics in Atlanta, especially from outside the United States, drive the Internet into catastrophic collapse?

I worried about that here in April. (See “Summer Olympics to use IBM’s `extranet’ 390s, but beware the Ides of July,” April 8, page 43.) Since then I’ve been talking with John Patrick, vice president for Internet technology at IBM.

The company is the official information technology sponsor of the Olympics and is scaling up for millions of Web hits per hour — a mere drop in the Internet’s bucket. Patrick is almost totally sure there will be no Internet collapses around the Olympics.

In Atlanta, IBM has assembled a huge intranet, comprised of its business machines in 10 or so different applications. One of several on-site System/390 mainframes running DB2, a bevy of AS/400 minicomputers, and thousands of IBM PCs will be involved in event-results gathering and reporting, for example. How will Internet users jack into all this trackside information processing? Through IBM’s “Womplex.”

IBM’s Global Network (IGN) provides 40 T1 (1.5Mbps) feeds between IBM’s Atlanta intranet and the Womplex. Note that IGN, called Advantis in the United States, is perhaps the largest Internet service provider, with, according to IBM, 5,000 employees connecting 20,000 enterprises with 2 million users in 850 cities worldwide.

The center of IBM’s Womplex is in Southbury, Conn., where an IBM SP2 with 53 RS/6000 processors runs various object-oriented Web servers on AIX, IBM’s version of Unix. The Womplex expands out from Southbury through IGN and the Internet to another 50 SP2 processors around the world. Some of these processors are being borrowed for the Olympic “extranet” from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., where they have the world’s largest SP2, a supercomputer with 512 RS/6000 processors.

So, what’s a Womplex? IBM has developed a ton of Internet software based on its Web Object Manager, or WOM. This software is aimed at supporting large-scale Web applications — what I would call extranets — through networks of servers and distributed Web objects. These servers and objects are IBM’s Womplex, all now scaling up for Internet coverage of the Olympics.

While adding its scalable parallel processors to the Womplex as needed, IBM is also adding circuits to IGN and between IGN and the rest of the Internet. These circuits provide transmission capacity and routing diversity to the Womplex. IBM now has a T3 (45Mbps) circuit and peering agreement with each of four of the Internet’s Network Access Points. These four circuits were engineered to spread the Olympic load among the major Internet backbones.

To achieve “geographical scalability,” the Womplex spreads hit-processing and moves it closer to where it’s needed. For example, the Womplex uses “PING triangulation” to redirect Web links. The Womplex asks each of its mirror servers to PING (measure the round trip to) your Internet address and then triangulates (chooses the minimum) to determine which is closest. This happens synchronously while you are being served your first few pages from the primary servers. Thereafter, your Web pages are downloaded by the closest server, spreading the load among servers and minimizing the bandwidth your links consume on the Internet.

“Closest” here does not mean shortest distance along a great circular route, but something akin to minimum delay, which is a function of Internet topology, capacity of intervening circuits, and traffic during triangulation.

IBM is also offering streaming audio and video out of its Olympic Web.

There you can download the IBM Cha Cha streaming media player for Netscape Navigator. When I suggested that such downloading and streaming might flood the Internet, Patrick disagreed and noted that, in the interest of being a good Internet citizen, IBM has put automatic throttling into its streaming services, so that such streaming will be stopped should overload occur.

IBM may eventually offer its Womplex facilities to paying customers. I guess it’s doing the Olympics to demonstrate how good the Womplex is. Now if only the Internet holds up under the strain.

Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com Corp. in 1979.
Copyright © 1996 by InfoWorld Publishing Company
Title: From the Ether