Twitter Hopes to Retire ‘Fail Whale’ With Custom-Built Data Center

Twitter has announced that it will be working toward consolidating management of its data centers within its own organization. The company’s first custom-built data center, located in the Salt Lake City area, will fire up later this year.

Twitter will keep its relationship with NTT America to maintain its current operational capacity, said Jean-Paul Cozzatti on the Twitter Engineering blog. However, he listed numerous advantages to taking data center operation in-house and noted that more Twitter-owned and operated facilities will be built during the next two years.

Whale Fail Woes

Anyone who has used the Twitter service recognizes the amicable whale held aloft by little birds — affectionately and not-so-affectionately known as the “Whale Fail” screen. Twitter is “over capacity,” announces the whale, making the friendly suggestion that the Twitter user try posting again soon. While Twitter hasn’t released official figures on the rate the Whale Fail screen appears, anecdotal reports suggest many users see it at least once a day.

In its two years of operation, the Twitter service has expanded from a base of young, trendy, for-fun users to inclusion of a wide range of businesses and organizations. Public libraries, government offices, accounting firms — all these and more use the Twitter service to announce programs, services, and even time-sensitive information like changes in hours of operation.

The home screen of the Twitter website now displays a rolling marquee of “trending” topics — tweets that are receiving the most traffic. Celebrities make announcements, and refute them, in this public space.

Thus, the service that once was a novelty has become an integral part of the communications infrastructure for a wide range of users, commercial and not.

“Twitter has become an important tool for professionals and marketers,” Greg Sterling, founder and principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld. As such, it can’t afford to be seen an unreliable or operating below capacity.

Blessing and Curse

Twitter’s user base is growing by about 300,000 accounts per day, said Cozzatti in his blog post, and the systems engineering challenges inherent in that kind of growth are unique.

To manage the operational needs more precisely and shift resources more quickly, Twitter needs to both own and operate the data centers, he said.

In fact, the ability to add capacity is crucial to Twitter’s success, stressed Sterling. The service needs to minimize failures and outages. In the case of a real-time messaging service based on both Web and SMS platforms, any unavailability or delay in transmitting tweets could be viewed as an outage.

In addition, establishing loyalty with a user base that’s increasingly moving to mobile platforms is very important, Josh Martin, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld. Once a user gets established on any social networking service, it’s difficult to consider a change. Twitter, by its nature, is positioned to make deep inroads into the rapidly growing market of smartphone users, because it can send messages via SMS or a wide range of Twitter apps available for all smartphone platforms.

“Mobile devices will sell more units than PCs ever did,” Martin stressed. It stands to follow, then, that the traffic created by that exponentially larger user base will require the ability to add capacity quickly and perhaps often.

Twitter’s new data center will operate with an open source operating system and application software, said Cozzatti.

Hardware will come from a variety of vendors. The custom-designed facility will provide Twitter with the ability to design redundancy into its network architecture so that failsafe measures can ensure reliability in the service.

The Salt Lake City center will, off the bat, establish a larger footprint than Twitter currently has with NTT America and thus add capacity at the outset, explained Cozzatti. It will also allow Twitter to better control the environmental aspects of its data operations, such as power and cooling.

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