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Inside MySpace: The Story

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2007-01-16 Print this article Print

Booming traffic demands put a constant stress on the social network's computing infrastructure. Here's how it copes.

title=The Journey Begins}

The Journey Begins

MySpace may be struggling with scalability issues today, but its leaders started out with a keen appreciation for the importance of Web site performance.

The Web site was launched a little more than three years ago by an Internet marketing company called Intermix Media (also known, in an earlier incarnation, as eUniverse), which ran an assortment of e-mail marketing and Web businesses. MySpace founders Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson had previously founded an e-mail marketing company called ResponseBase that they sold to Intermix in 2002. The ResponseBase team received $2 million plus a profit-sharing deal, according to a Web site operated by former Intermix CEO Brad Greenspan. (Intermix was an aggressive Internet marketer—maybe too aggressive. In 2005, then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer—now the state's governor—won a $7.9 million settlement in a lawsuit charging Intermix with using adware. The company admitted no wrongdoing.)

In 2003, Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act to control the use of unsolicited e-mail marketing. Intermix's leaders, including DeWolfe and Anderson, saw that the new laws would make the e-mail marketing business more difficult and "were looking to get into a new line of business," says Duc Chau, a software developer who was hired by Intermix to rewrite the firm's e-mail marketing software.

At the time, Anderson and DeWolfe were also members of Friendster, an earlier entrant in the category MySpace now dominates, and they decided to create their own social networking site. Their version omitted many of the restrictions Friendster placed on how users could express themselves, and they also put a bigger emphasis on music and allowing bands to promote themselves online. Chau developed the initial version of the MySpace Web site in Perl, running on the Apache Web server, with a MySQL database back end. That didn't make it past the test phase, however, because other Intermix developers had more experience with ColdFusion, the Web application environment originally developed by Allaire and now owned by Adobe. So, the production Web site went live on ColdFusion, running on Windows, and Microsoft SQL Server as the database.

Chau left the company about then, leaving further Web development to others, including Aber Whitcomb, an Intermix technologist who is now MySpace's chief technology officer, and Benedetto, who joined about a month after MySpace went live.

MySpace was launched in 2003, just as Friendster started having trouble keeping pace with its own runaway growth. In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Friendster president Kent Lindstrom admitted his service stumbled at just the wrong time, taking 20 to 30 seconds to deliver a page when MySpace was doing it in 2 or 3 seconds.

As a result, Friendster users began to defect to MySpace, which they saw as more dependable.

Today, MySpace is the clear "social networking" king. Social networking refers to Web sites organized to help users stay connected with each other and meet new people, either through introductions or searches based on common interests or school affiliations. Other prominent sites in this category include Facebook, which originally targeted university students; and LinkedIn, a professional networking site, as well as Friendster. MySpace prefers to call itself a "next generation portal," emphasizing a breadth of content that includes music, comedy and videos. It operates like a virtual nightclub, with a juice bar for under-age visitors off to the side, a meat-market dating scene front and center, and marketers in search of the youth sector increasingly crashing the party.

Users register by providing basic information about themselves, typically including age and hometown, their sexual preference and their marital status. Some of these options are disabled for minors, although MySpace continues to struggle with a reputation as a stomping ground for sexual predators.

MySpace profile pages offer many avenues for self-expression, ranging from the text in the About Me section of the page to the song choices loaded into the MySpace music player, video choices, and the ranking assigned to favorite friends. MySpace also gained fame for allowing users a great deal of freedom to customize their pages with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a Web standard formatting language that makes it possible to change the fonts, colors and background images associated with any element of the page. The results can be hideous—pages so wild and discolored that they are impossible to read or navigate—or they can be stunning, sometimes employing professionally designed templates (see "Too Much of a Good Thing?" p. 48).

The "network effect," in which the mass of users inviting other users to join MySpace led to exponential growth, began about eight months after the launch "and never really stopped," Chau says.

News Corp., the media empire that includes the Fox television networks and 20th Century Fox movie studio, saw this rapid growth as a way to multiply its share of the audience of Internet users, and bought MySpace in 2005 for $580 million. Now, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch apparently thinks MySpace should be valued like a major Web portal, recently telling a group of investors he could get $6 billion—more than 10 times the price he paid in 2005—if he turned around and sold it today. That's a bold claim, considering the Web site's total revenue was an estimated $200 million in the fiscal year ended June 2006. News Corp. says it expects Fox Interactive as a whole to have revenue of $500 million in 2007, with about $400 million coming from MySpace.

But MySpace continues to grow. In December, it had 140 million member accounts, compared with 40 million in November 2005. Granted, that doesn't quite equate to the number of individual users, since one person can have multiple accounts, and a profile can also represent a band, a fictional character like Borat, or a brand icon like the Burger King.

Still, MySpace has tens of millions of people posting messages and comments or tweaking their profiles on a regular basis—some of them visiting repeatedly throughout the day. That makes the technical requirements for supporting MySpace much different than, say, for a news Web site, where most content is created by a relatively small team of editors and passively consumed by Web site visitors. In that case, the content management database can be optimized for read-only requests, since additions and updates to the database content are relatively rare. A news site might allow reader comments, but on MySpace user-contributed content is the primary content. As a result, it has a higher percentage of database interactions that are recording or updating information rather than just retrieving it.

Every profile page view on MySpace has to be created dynamically—that is, stitched together from database lookups. In fact, because each profile page includes links to those of the user's friends, the Web site software has to pull together information from multiple tables in multiple databases on multiple servers. The database workload can be mitigated somewhat by caching data in memory, but this scheme has to account for constant changes to the underlying data.

The Web site architecture went through five major revisions—each coming after MySpace had reached certain user account milestones—and dozens of smaller tweaks, Benedetto says. "We didn't just come up with it; we redesigned, and redesigned, and redesigned until we got where we are today," he points out.

Although MySpace declined formal interview requests, Benedetto answered Baseline's questions during an appearance in November at the SQL Server Connections conference in Las Vegas. Some of the technical information in this story also came from a similar "mega-sites" presentation that Benedetto and his boss, chief technology officer Whitcomb, gave at Microsoft's MIX Web developer conference in March.

As they tell it, many of the big Web architecture changes at MySpace occurred in 2004 and early 2005, as the number of member accounts skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands and then millions.

At each milestone, the Web site would exceed the maximum capacity of some component of the underlying system, often at the database or storage level. Then, features would break, and users would scream. Each time, the technology team would have to revise its strategy for supporting the Web site's workload.

And although the systems architecture has been relatively stable since the Web site crossed the 7 million account mark in early 2005, MySpace continues to knock up against limits such as the number of simultaneous connections supported by SQL Server, Benedetto says: "We've maxed out pretty much everything."

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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