The Update that wasn’t

May 11, 1999: Today will go down in Passionate history as the Update that was not an Update. Uh, guess that needs some explaining?

On April 30th, I received a very rude surprise when I visited our site. It was running like a dog. I mean, I’ve seen molasses streaming up hill, in the middle of February, running faster. It took long, breathless seconds just to connect to netpoets.com, and often several minutes just to download a single page. That’s when the page would completely download, of course. As often as not it would instead terminate with a network error.

I’m going to spare you a lot of gory details about the next several days. I won’t tell you about the unnecessary work I did on the server, the investigation of my local ISP, or all of the phone calls I made or emails I sent. It took me almost a week, but I finally discovered the problem.

There are a lot of discrete parts that make the Internet work. At the very lowest level are the physical pipes (wires) that run from your machine all the way to the Passionate server. Lots of different pipes. And, as in the real world, those pipes come in many different sizes. The pipe running from my computer (and presumably yours) to the wall is the smallest. It’s a garden hose type pipe, and I can only push just so much water (er, bytes) through it at one time. That’s okay, though, because I’m the only one using it. At the other end of the spectrum is the Internet Backbone, a very small group of pipes so large that all the water in the world (er, bytes) can flow swiftly through them at one time. These are river-size pipes, and they have to be because everyone uses them at the same time! Between these two extremes are the irrigation hoses (Ethernet, ISDN’s, DSL’s, cable modems and such), the fire-hoses (or T1’s), the conduits that run under the street of a city block (the T3’s), and the still larger pipes that connect directly to the city reservoir (the OC3’s and larger). Lots and lots of pipes, all serving different purposes.

Well, on April 30th, we got a clog in one of our pipes. The Passionate server was connected to the rest of the Internet via a T1, one of those fire-hose size pipes. Not a really big pipe to start with, and I had it in the back of my head we would soon have to upgrade – but it was getting us by. Trouble was, we weren’t the only one using that particular pipe. A dedicated T1 costs between five and seven grand a month (and you thought the Internet was free?), so we were sharing it with a lot of other servers. The company that owns the pipe, called an "uplink" in Net parlance, makes their money by investing capital in the big pipes and then renting them out.

The problem is that Passions in Poetry has been just a tad too successful lately. We were supposed to be using just a piece of our T1, but we were in actuality using darn near the whole thing. Like any finite sized pipe, you can only push just so much water (er, bytes) through it at one time. And the other servers on our shared pipe to the Internet started complaining they couldn’t get anything through. So, our uplink put a valve between the Passionate server and the T1 to make sure we couldn’t hog his whole fire hose. And, my friends, it turned out to be a really small valve!

So, for most of the past two weeks, our poetry has been trickling across the Internet instead of flowing. Highly unacceptable. Well, as of today, Passions is back to a steady flow. At least for most of us. Last week, you see, I went out and bought us a new pipe.

Unfortunately, life is seldom simple. I’ll admit that I could have just disconnected our old pipe, hooked in the new, bigger pipe, and we’d have been back up and running just like the old times. But only for a while. Passions has grown incredibly fast over the past few months, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. Had I replaced our teeny pipe with the next size up, we would have just faced the same problem again in a few months.

For those who don’t like technical talk, please skip this paragraph and move ahead to the next. The main Passions site is now running on a T3, albeit as a temporary solution. On May 15th, we’ll be down for about five hours as the server gets moved to a whopping OC48 line (a really big pipe). But we still don’t get the whole pipe (I ain’t rich, ya know), so we’re also utilizing a technique called load-sharing. When you’re reading a poem you’ll be on our new T3-soon-to-be-a-OC48 line, but when you go to vote on a poem, or send a poem to a friend, or submit a poem, or do any one of many other such things, you’ll actually be moving to different web server. Watch the URL. Watch it change from netpoets.com to something else (right now, netpoets.net). I’ve spent most of the past week completely rewriting the Passions web site so it can easily run on multiple servers. Right now, we’ll be using two. As we continue to grow, it should be easy (I pray!) to add more.

So that’s the story. Well, most of it. I guess those who don’t like technical talk should probably skip this paragraph, too. Sorry. You see, life really is rarely simple, and neither is our move to a bigger pipe. The whole Internet is managed by a large group of computers called Domain Name Servers, or DNS servers (and, yea, I know there’s a redundant "servers" in there, but that’s just what they’re called). When you type in an URL or click on a link or bookmark or favorite, one of the DNS servers looks up the "name" and translates it to an IP number so it can find the web server you want. All of the several thousand DNS servers share a common database, which comes from Network Solutions, better known as InterNIC. The problem is, all of those DNS servers don’t update their database as often as they might. Some, in fact, only update about once a week. Well, when I moved the Passionate server to a new pipe we had to change the database. So, there’s going to be some people, maybe as many as 20 percent of the world, that won’t find the *new* site for as much as a week. When those poor souls go to netpoets.com they’ll be going to the old, slow as molasses web server. At least until their DNS server updates the database so they can find the new site.

Unfortunately, those of us in the lucky 80 percent group have to pay just a teeny-tiny price to accommodate those poor people in the 20 percent group. You see, I don’t dare add any new poetry to Passions until the old, slow server has died completely. If I did, the several thousand notices I would also have to send out, telling the poets and visitors there’s new material posted, would be lying to 20 percent of the world.

And that, my friends, is why this will officially be the Update that wasn’t an Update. There’s no new poetry to announce, and won’t be for at least a few more days. But, trust me — it’s coming!

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