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When a Widget Slows Your Platform

What happens when popular third-party "widget" apps slow the performance of a network with a huge user base?

The opening of social networking platforms to third-party applications has created a vibrant "widget economy" and boosted the fortunes of app developers like Slide and RockYou. But what happens when popular apps slow the performance of a network with a huge user base?

"Network degradation" was a hot topic this weekend after white-label network provider Ning cited performance issues in banning Widget Laboratories from its platform. The shutdown caused significant problems for thousands of Ning users who paid to use apps from Widget Labs, who found their networks didn't function properly when the widgets were suddenly shut off.

Widget Labs protested vigorously and took its case to the blogosphere, alleging that the ban was driven by business issues rather than technical problems. But the last word from Ning focused on "multiple and significant technical degradations to the Ning platform," according to a lengthy e-mail exchange posted by Widget Labs. The debate over the banning continues (see TechCrunch for a summary).

Setting aside the particulars of the Ning-Widget Labs brouhaha, the dispute highlighted the performance challenges of opening platforms to third-party applications, which has been a management challenge for many social networks, including Facebook.

"We're constantly working with the developer community," Jonathan Heiliger, Facebook's , VP of technical operations, said in June in a panel at the Structure 08 conference. "If you let people use their own code, you open yourself to risk. If you provide developers a set of tools, you have more control."

Heiliger said that Facebook has "had to turn off applications because their response time has caused other applications to suffer. We proactively provide information for our partners."

Communication is critical for third-party developers, according to Jeremiah Robison, the chief technology officer of Slide, one of the largest widget providers to Facebook and MySpace. "We comb through Facebook stats, we have their ops folks on instant messenger, and early on in the platform there was even more dialog," said Robison. "Through time the platform got better, the apps got better, but still the trust is there."

But the conversation isn't always that smooth, and this is a problem that is bound to recur. Dare Obasanjo has offered a practical response with a post titled Best Practices for Web Sites Seeking to Prevent Service Degradation due to 3rd Party Widgets. Mike Davidson has previously offered strategies for preventing widgets from slowing your site.

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