How MySpace data chief makes billions of records add up

Summary:Don Watters, chief data architect at social-networking site MySpace, discusses the problems of dealing with up to six billion visitor records a day

Social-networking site MySpace may have slipped behind Facebook, but it still handles up to six billion visitor records a day.

With a major revamp due later this year, designed to help MySpace make up ground on its rival, the company — snapped up by Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp for $580m (then £332m) in 2005 — is predicting a big jump in activity on the site and a corresponding surge in the records it handles daily — up to 10 billion. The man charged with the sizable task of making sense of that information is chief data architect Don Watters.

ZDNet UK caught up with him recently to ask him about MySpace's relaunch plans and the main issues with managing and analysing substantial volumes of information.

Q: How would you describe your job and the main challenges you face?
A: As chief data architect for MySpace, I pretty much have tactical purview over the entire data platform. Not only the data warehouse, but also the data-mining platform and the data development platform, which is all the front-end data you see at MySpace — so anything to do with your profile or music and video data. It's my responsibility to ensure the data is secure, safe, reliable and on time in real-time.

The biggest challenges we have are to do with scale. We have been doing it a while, but it's still not easy to deal with billions of records a day and still maintain some kind of coherency within the system. We have to deal with that amount of data every day. We're still struggling with new data as it comes in and [with] integrating it and making it available not only to internal users but to our customers.

Can you give an example of the information you provide to customers?
The easiest concrete example is something like an artist's dashboard, where we've given the artists who are on MySpace information about what their user base looks like. Just demographically — they don't get to see any detailed user data.

By demographic, we show artists over time what's happening on their part of the site so that they can get a better understanding of who is actually doing what. Then they either can adjust their message or their site, or maybe go to the towns where they're seeing a lot of activity.

We do an incredible amount of data crunching to be able to figure that out, because it's not always easy to take in information from users. They may say they are 103 years old and live on the North Pole, and we just have to believe them.

Or we can do the opposite, and do some introspection and try and figure out what do [the artist's] friends look like and who that person is, based on other information. We use crowdsourcing, where you take multiple sources and try and figure out what's going on in a single point of view from that crowd source.

Can you provide a sense of the scale of the number crunching?
It's massive numbers of information. We're doing somewhere in the order of three to six billion records a day.

As MySpace changes over the next six months to reinvigorate our brand, we are going to do things that will change the front end and make even more activity happen. If you think about what Twitter does and what Facebook does, you'll see a lot of things that are similar in concept, but not similar in product.

So today on MySpace, the centre panel is called the activity stream. You can filter that by many different aspects, which is something that nobody else really does. But to be able to do that in real-time is actually quite a challenge. To be able then to record on what's going on on the site, so that people understand what features are being used and what's not being used, and how they are being used and what ways users traverse the site — what pages they are hitting on the way — that takes an incredible amount of data.

MySpace is going to go through a giant product relaunch towards the end of this year, and that means the way we are doing business on the front end...

Topics: Networking


Toby Wolpe is a senior reporter at ZDNet in London. He started in technology journalism when the Apple II was state of the art.

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