FRAMINGHAM (02/04/2000) - The first hits came only seconds after LastMinuteTravel.com Inc.'s commercial hit the air during the waning moments of Super Bowl XXXIV.
For the next 12 nerve-racking minutes, executives at the company's Atlanta headquarters watched tensely as the number of page views quickly climbed past the 20,000-per-second mark, slowing response times to about 15 seconds from 7 seconds.
But the site didn't crash.
Last week, dot-com companies that aired commercials during this year's big game were congratulating themselves for having emerged largely unscathed from brief - but staggeringly huge - spikes in traffic generated by their highly visible ads.
Their experience suggests that the increasing use of professional hosting services, sophisticated network- and load-management technologies and a tendency to build in lots of redundant server capacity are helping firms better deal with sudden spikes in Web traffic, said Gene Shklar, a vice president at Keynote Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif.-based Internet performance measurement company. "Overall, Web sites performed remarkably well," he said.
Keynote tracked the performance of 35 companies that advertised during the Super Bowl broadcast. Only nine showed measurable service degradations, most of which were restricted to periods immediately after the ads aired.
Though differences were minimal, "generally speaking, companies that have had more experience on the Web were more consistent and reliable" than newcomers, Shklar added.
Consider New York-based HotJobs.com Ltd., which made its second Super Bowl appearance this year. The first time, its site got knocked off the air by a 120% surge in traffic in the days following its Super Bowl ad. This time around, a sixteenfold increase in server capacity, major changes to its database architecture and new load-balancing switches ensured that the site stayed up - even as page views on Super Bowl Sunday hit 2.6 million, or 4.5 times last year's number, said CIO George Nassef Jr.
"The machines we had could have handled a much, much larger spike," Nassef said.
Even newcomers such as Computer.com Inc. and OurBeginning.Com Inc. claim to have had no problems.
In addition to building in lots of server headroom, both companies used the services of Internet content delivery services provider Akamai Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., to help carry the load. By caching frequently accessed Web content, such as a home page or images, on Akamai servers worldwide, both companies were able to off-load traffic from their own networks.
"Akamai took 90% of our traffic when the commercials ran," said Jordan S. Olin, chief technology officer at Computer.com in Maynard, Mass. Of the 40,000 pages per second served up by Computer.com during peak traffic, Akamai handled more than 35,000, Olin said.
A similar arrangement with service provider Digital Island Ltd. in San Francisco ensured that LastMinuteTravel.com's server resources were never taxed to more than 60% of their capacities, said Jay Ramadorai, the company's chief technology officer. "Our site held up really well during the crisis," he said.
Orlando-based OurBeginning.com contracted with both Akamai and a service provider in Virginia to provide network bandwidth and physically host its nine brand-new Unix servers. The site, which sells stationery for special events, performed without a hitch, even as traffic soared more than 500%.
And with a 400% surge in post-Super Bowl sales, "we are definitely looking forward to being there next year," OurBeginning.com CEO Mike Budowski said.