Britannica.com: Back To The Books?

As Halloween preparations have turned to Christmas planning, Britannica.com's launch has progressed from stumble to debacle.

As Halloween preparations have turned to Christmas planning, Britannica.com's launch has progressed from stumble to debacle. The company is owning up to some, but not all, planning fumbles.

If you can't use Britannica.com right now to explore Encyclopaedia Britannica, along with a Web directory and archive of 76 journals, it means even bigger trouble for the company's decision to shift gears rather than fight the irresistible force of free Internet information.

Senior Vice President Kent Devereaux promised the site would be up before Nov. 8. He'd made the same promise, though, for Oct. 25. But readers checking into the site late last week found the home page bereft of even its usual content - a series of humble, yet plucky, notes from Chief Executive Don Yannias.

"We have been placed obviously in an uncomfortable situation," Devereaux said. "At the same time, customers have been very, very understanding."

Britannica stirred an international sensation in mid-October, announcing the renowned encyclopedia would become available free for the first time - online. Tens of millions of hits from homework researchers, trivia buffs and lookie-loos crippled the site from the revamp's outset. It received 10 megabits of traffic per second, 10 times what it was designed to handle, according to GlobalCenter, with which Britannica has colocated Sun Ultra Enterprise 2 servers at four locales internationally. Britannica also operates servers at its Chicago headquarters.

"We didn't expect encyclopedic content to be as popular as lingerie," Devereaux said, alluding to the Victoria's Secret's Webcast of its lingerie show earlier this year that left many disappointed viewers unable to log on.

Surprised and gratified Britannica executives promised to triple their Web servers, have the site running normally by Oct. 25 and make the glitch a distant memory before month's end.

USWeb/CKS was brought in, and deliberations with its consultants, along with Sun Microsystems and database provider Oracle, convinced Britannica Chief Technology Officer James Beattie that adding capacity wouldn't suffice, Devereaux said. The site's architecture had to be modified to prevent its being swamped again. By late last week, servers in Chicago; Herndon, Va.; and Sunnyvale, Calif., were back up and undergoing tests. Britannica also decided to add high-end database gear at all locations. But the work took weeks rather than days.

Even with the changes, Britannica admits it can't handle any deluge that might come its way. "We're not building out to [America Online] capacity," Devereaux said.

Britannica had made a deal with Akamai Technologies to use its caching technology to manage traffic spikes, Devereaux said, but the encyclopedia company put off carrying it out until after launch. He said this aggravated Britannica's problems.

GlobalCenter, Global Crossing's hosting unit, suggested Britannica should have bought its development services instead of taking on the challenge itself.

Money is a consideration. Up-front charges for engineering help on a site such as Britannica.com can run $60,000. Britannica denied its problems resulted from trying to economize.

How will Britannica get out word when the site finally becomes available? "As quietly as possible," Devereaux said.

- Mel Duvall contributed to this report.

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