How many machines do you need to run your site?

Amazingly TechCrunch runs their website on one web server and one database server, according to the fascinating survey What the Web’s most popular sites are running on by Pingdom, a  provider of uptime and response time monitoring.

Early we learned PlentyOfFish catches and releases many millions of hits a day on just 1 web server and three database servers. Google runs a Dalek army full of servers. YouSendIt, a company making it easy to send and receive large files, has 24 web servers,  3 database servers, 170 storage servers, and a few miscellaneous servers. Vimeo, a video sharing company, has 100 servers for streaming video, 4 web servers, and 2 database servers. Meebo, an AJAX based instant messaging company, uses 40 servers to handle messaging, over 40 web servers,  and 10 servers for forums, jabber, testing, and so on. FeedBurner, a news feed management company, has 70 web servers, 15 database servers, and 10 miscellaneous servers. Now multiply FeedBurner's server count by two because they maintain two geographically separate sites, in an active-passive configuration, for high availability purposes.

How many servers will you need and how can you trick yourself into using fewer?

Find Someone Like You and Base Your Resource Estimates Off Them

We see quite a disparity in the number of servers needed for popular web sites. It ranges from just a few servers to many hundreds. Where do you fit?

The easiest approach to figuring out how many servers you'll need is to find a company similar to yours and look how many they need. You won't need that many right away, but as you grow it's something to think about. Can your data center handle your growth? Do they have enough affordable bandwidth and rack space? How will you install and manage all the machines? Who will do the work? And a million other similar questions that might be better handled if you had some idea where you are going.

Get Someone Else to Do it

Clearly content sites end up needing a lot of servers. Videos, music, pictures, blogs, and attachments all eat up space and since that's your business you have no alternative but to find a way to store all that data. This is unstructured data that can be stored outside the database in a SAN or NAS.

Or, rather that building your own storage infrastructure, you can follow the golden rule of laziness:  get someone else to do it.

That's what SmugMug, an image sharing company did.  They use S3 to store many hundreds of terabytes of data.  This drops the expense of creating a large highly available storage infrastructure so much that it creates a whole new level of competition for content rich sites. At one time expertise in creating massive storage farms would have been enough to keep competition away, but no more. These sorts of abilities are becoming commoditized, affordable, and open.

PlentyOfFish and YouTube make use of CDNs to reduce the amount of infrastructure they need to create for themselves. If you need to stream video why not let a CDN do it instead of building out your own expensive infrastructure?

You can take a "let other people do it approach" for services like email, DNS, backup, forums, and blogs too. These are all now outsourcable. Does it make sense to put these services in your data center if you don't need to?

If you have compute intensive tasks you can use
Amazon services without needing to perform your own build out.

And an approach I am really excited to investigate in the future is a new breed of grid based virtual private data centers like 3tera and mediatemple. Their claim to fame is that you can componetize your infrastructure in such a way that you can scale automatically and transparently using their grid as demand fluctuates. I don't have any experience with this approach yet, but it's interesting and probably where the world is heading.

If your web site is relatively simple blog then with mostly static content then you can get away with far fewer servers. Even a popular site like Digg has only 30GB of data to store.

How do your resources scale with the number of users?

A question you have to ask also is do your resources scale linearly, exponentially, or not much at all with the number of users. A blog site may not scale much with the number of users. Some sites scale linearly as users are added. And others sites that rely on social interaction, like Google Talk, may scale exponentially as users are added. Getting a feel for the type of site you have can help more realistic numbers pop up on your magic server eight-ball.

What's your caching strategy?

A lot of sites use Memcached and Squid for caching. You can fill up a few racks with caching servers. How many servers will you need for caching? Or can you get away with just beefing up the database server cache?

Do you need servers for application specific tasks?

Servers aren't just for storage, database, and the web servers. You may have a bit of computation going on. YouTube offloads tag calculations to a server farm. GoogleTalk has to have servers for handling presence calculations. PlentyOfFish has servers to handle geographical searches because they are so resource intensive. GigaVox needs servers to transcode podcasts into different formats and include fresh commercial content. If you are a calendar service you may need servers to calculate more complicated schedule availability schemes and to sync address books. So depending on your site, you may have to budget for many application related servers like these.

The Pingdom folks also created a sweet table on what technologies the companies profiled on this site are using. You can find it at What nine of the world’s largest websites are running on. I'm very jealous of their masterful colorful graphics-fu style. Someday I hope rise to that level of presentation skill.