Is the new question answering service from Wolfram Alpha a big stud or a big dud? According to a recent post from the Wolfram Alpha blog, we will all get to decide for ourselves when the service officially launches on May 18. Criticism aside, there is plenty of evidence from interviews and demos that Wolfram Alpha will be good at some tasks and bad at others, but overall a worthy addition to our information gathering toolboxes. (check out our previous coverage)
One of the most interesting things about the Wolfram Alpha launch is its hugely publicized nature. Most internet services launch quietly in an alpha or beta stage and then slowly improve features and access to the public as the kinks are worked out. Wolfram Alpha has forgone this proven technique, instead going for a much publicized “all at once” launch, creating an enviable level of interest, but also enormous expectations that may be impossible to meet.
The much publicized launch also creates a serious (and expensive!) engineering challenge for the Wolfram Alpha operations team responsible for building the infrastructure for the service. On May 18 Wolfram Alpha is going to receive an enormous influx of traffic as everyone and their dog attempts to give the service a go. Traffic on launch day will easily be an order of magnitude greater than what the service will normally see in its immediate lifetime afterward. This will require an expensive order of magnitude increase in the number of computers and networking gear needed to support the first day launch, significantly increasing the day one complexity and failure probability of the service.
My bet is that the service will be extremely unreliable on the first day of launch as the site literally crumbles under the massive load. Going in Wolfram Alpha’s favor is that most users will probably be pretty forgiving of any first day hiccups as long as the service can ultimately deliver the goods.
Years ago I used to manage the global buildout of Google’s thousands of servers, so you’ll pardon me if I am a little over excited to see computers, switches, and ethernet cables being strung together in the Wolfram Alpha datacenter video below. Huge face time for Dell in the video…if Wolfram Alpha is smart they should have snagged one heck of a deal from Dell for this: