FAA ascends to new IP levels

The Federal Aviation Administration’s information technology office is turning to
an IP load balancer to relieve strain on a Web server that gets nearly 2 million hits each
week.


“We have nine servers in the FAA that do Web service,” said Gus Cornell,
senior adviser for Web services. “Right now, one machine is shouldering most of the
load, and it’s nearing the limit of its capacity.” The machine hosts the home
page at http://www.faa.gov, through which most visitors
pass.


As FAA revamps its Web services, a turnkey server called Web Server Director Pro from
RND Networks Inc. of Mahwah, N.J., is becoming the front end to all the servers. A second
server will host a mirror home page. Eventually, four servers will take over more of the
load, Cornell said.


Web Server Director Pro, part of a new category of IP load-balancing hardware, sits
between the Internet and the site to distribute traffic among identical content servers.


RND Networks introduced the hardware in early 1997, expecting it to be used almost
exclusively for Internet servers. But markets soon developed for intranets and firewall
load-balancing, said Ed Wimbish, the company’s federal sales manager.


Government is a recent focus, Wimbish said, because agencies are quick to adopt new
technologies.


“Government agencies are being driven to use the Internet more,” he said.


Not only is Web server traffic growing, agencies’ increasing reliance on the Web
for service delivery also makes it vital to eliminate single points of failure.
Maintenance becomes difficult if traffic cannot be distributed.


“Every now and then all machines need service,” FAA’s Cornell said.
“If we had Web Server Director, any one of the nine servers could be brought down,
and the users wouldn’t notice.”


Other early federal adopters include the National Library of Medicine and the Air
Force’s Global Transportation System.


All the Web Server Director products, which include WSD, WSD Pro, WSD-DS for
distributed systems and WSD for Network Proximity, are built on an Intel RISC router
platform and will work with any maker’s servers, company officials said.


The boxes measure round-trip server response times and redirect traffic to the server
that can best handle requests. They claim 200-Mbps throughput and can handle up to 2,048
server farms and up to 900,000 concurrent TCP/IP connections.


Other ways to distribute traffic among mirror Web sites exist, such as via software
applications that reside on the Web server.


“The problem with software was that our machine was pretty much taxed as it
was,” Cornell said. Load-balancing software could ease the burden, but he was
unwilling to pile another job on the server.


The job also could be done on a domain name server, which matches domain names to IP
addresses in incoming requests. But that would require FAA to maintain its access policies
on hardware not owned or controlled by the agency. For these reasons and also because it
is scalable, Cornell said, the standalone RND Networks unit was preferable.


Web Server Director Pro eventually will front-end the nine core servers at FAA
headquarters, all of which are dual-CPU machines running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.
Additional pages are hosted on servers at regional centers and offices around the country.


Although the new hardware was scheduled to be in place by midsummer, the content of the
revised site is still under debate, Cornell said. The public often visits the site and
might be unfamiliar with FAA’s structure. Officials have not decided whether to
organize information according to agency structure or according to subject matter.


“It’s a lot easier to do it structurally, which is the way we do it
now,” Cornell said, because information from each department is concentrated on a
single server.


Arranging information so that it’s easier for the public to search would require
distributing it over a number of servers, and that complicates management, he said. 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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