In Election Season, The Hill Rolls With the Spikes

A look inside the equipment area at a New York Internet (NYI) data center. Among the company’s clients is the political site The Hill. (Photo: Rich Miller)

Tomorrow night’s first Presidential debate kicks off a key period for political web sites, with audiences building right through election night on Nov. 6. The challenge isn’t just more traffic, but the nature of the political news cycle, which features fast-moving events that can generate bursts of traffic with little warning.

“Spikiness is our issue, and that’s what we engineer for,” says Ari Spivakovsky, chief technology officer for The Hill, a favorite news site for many Washington political junkies. When a news story gains traction, Spivakovsky said, The Hill’s web site can see up to 1 million visitors in a three or four-hour period.

“The election season raises the baseline,” said Spivakovsky. “I can tell you that the difference between peaks and troughs is an order of magnitude difference.”

Load Balancing Key to Spike Management

How do you gird your infrastructure for those kind of spikes? The key preparations wee made eight months ago, when The Hill retooled its infrastructure with a new architecture to improve its load-balancing and caching capabilities.

Spivakovsky worked with New York Internet (NYI), The Hill’s data center provider, to create a system to automatically distribute traffic across four identical “stacks” of hardware and software. Each stack features the nginx server, the Varnish web application accelerator and the HAProxy load balancer. The editorial operation runs on a customized version of Joomla, the open source content management system.

“Each stack can support the entire website by itself,” said Spivakovksy. “Our architecture is highly tuned. We are already prepared for the election.”

The load balancing system will automatically detect surges in traffic and route the requests as needed to keep the site available. That’s a big change from the early days of the site, Spivakosky said. “It used to be that the newsroom would give us a heads up when traffic was coming,” he said. “These days, it’s all automated.”

Infrastructure in New York, NJ

The Hill hosts its infrastructure at NYI’s primary data center in New York, but has also taken a rack in NYI’s New Jersey data center in Bridgewater. NYI has built a solid customer base among New York-based media and publishing companies, many of which see substantial news-driven traffic, according to Philip Koblence, the VP of Operations for NYI.

“Companies like Ari’s benefit from the fact that we have a lot of managed services experience,” said Koblence. “They can take advantage of the know-how we gain from our experience in managing infrastructure for Rolling Stone and US Magazine.”

“What they provide for me is really priceless: peace of mind,” Spivakovsky said of NYI. “They share a lot of their experience and tips. I have a very small staff, so the kind of help Phil’s staff provides is valuable. I’ve dealt with other providers, and experiences just night and day.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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