Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Managing a web traffic surge

I've been the volunteer webmaster for St. Luke's Parish for about seven years. I run the site on a very low budget site. Up to now, it's hosted at doteasy.com using their "$0 dollar" hosting service. The deal is you pay the domain registration, they provide server space, some basic management tools and a limited traffic quota, which has always been fine for out typical traffic of 50 to 100 hits per day up to now.

Last Tuesday, July 17 there was tragedy in our town, three seventeen year old boys were involved in a boating accident. One boy, who was kneeboarding behind the boat without a life jacket, was lost. His body was located the following day. He was buried Thursday, July 25. The autopsy said he died of blunt force and sharp (propeller) trauma. The police said alcohol was involved. The operator of the boat was charged with reckless operation, death resulting and refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test. More charges are pending. They say he could serve 10 years in prison. My heart goes out to these families, although I can rationalize that they brought it upon themselves, I can't help but think there but for the grace of God, go I. I did my share of stupid things in my youth.

Father Matt Glover, the Associate pastor at St. Luke's was on the waterfront Tuesday night, along with many people, especially youth from town as the search went on. Recently ordained, Fr. Matt is young and very close to the kids in town. In April, he took a group of high school kids to work at the Mustard Seed mission in Jamaica. These kids raised $50,000 through the parish to provide supplies for the care of Jamaican orphans. When they came home, Fr. Matt and his mission team spoke at the Masses giving moving testimony about their experience.

Our town has been plagued by a rash of drug and alcohol related teen tragedies. Two years ago three local boys were involved in a late-night high-speed crash in town. Two were killed. The survivor required nearly a year of rehabilitation to recover. Last week another 21 year old, who graduated high school a few years ago died unexpectedly.

Sunday Fr. Matt gave an emotional sermon about these tragedies. Last spring I started recording homilies from our Masses and posting them on the web as audio podcasts for parishioners. I was at a different Mass Sunday, so I didn't hear Fr. Matt's homily in person, but I was blown away by the emotion of it as I edited, produced and posted the podcast. The homily was 22 minutes. The MP3 file was 10 Mb. You can hear the entire sermon here.

Tuesday morning, I got up a 5:45 and walked out to the driveway to pick up the Providence Journal. As I opened to the front page, I knew immediately that we would have an overload of traffic on the website. The page 1 headline read "Barrington priest decries denial after teen's death." The Rev. S. Matthew Glover tells parishioners to own up to substance abuse problems in town. "Our kids drink because we drink, that's why," he says. At the end of the story it said the full 22 minute homily can be heard at http://www.stlukesparish.com/.

I knew that with any significant numbers, downloads of the MP3 would overwhelm the site's monthly traffic quota. I'll just upgrade the hosting service I thought. I logged in to my ISP's site management page, which informed me that "Upgrading to ultra or unlimited hosting requires moving the site to a different server which will take place within 24 hours of the upgrade request. I didn't want to take a chance on bringing down the site in the middle of what was then expected to be a busy day.

I quickly found an online service, http://www.switchpod.com/, to host the MP3, and I provided a link there from our home page. Switchpod offers unlimited traffic quotas on a free hosting site for a select number of audio clips. I re-hosted the file there and updated our link. Fortunately the print article only listed our home page, not the specific URL for the file. I headed off to the office for an 8:30 meeting. I was able to monitor traffic using the hit counter statistics which showed 900 hits by 9:00 am and 2,000 by mid morning. We exceeded our 1 Gb per month traffic quota early in the day. I was concerned that the ISP would shut down the site. I submitted a support incident, explaining the situation and asking for advice on managing the surge.

Around 11:00 am, despite relocating the podcast, the traffic on the site continued to skyrocket. I looked at http://www.projo.com/ and found the reason. The online version of the newspaper had linked directly to the MP3 file which was still hosted on our server. I phoned the journal newsroom, and explained the situation. They were extremely cooperative and promptly updated their links.

We were over 3,500 hits when I checked around 3:00 pm and on the advice of the hosting service, I put in an order to upgrade our traffic quota on the website from 1 to 5 Gb/mo. At 10Mb per play for the audio file that didn't take long.

So far there were no apparent service interruptions. By this time, Eyewitness News channels 12 & 64 also had links to the podcast. On their web pages. I talked to a couple of friends who told me that talk radio in Providence was buzzing all day with the story and were broadcasting the podcast over the air.

By evening, the hits approached 5,000. The total, when I went to bed around 11:30 pm was over 6,800.

Two days later, the web hits are subsiding, there have been several follow up stories in local papers and television stations. Between the hits on the website, the news stories and talk radio, I'm sure that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people got to hear Fr. Matt's important message, which in the old days, would have been limited to the parish. Although the circumstances are tragic, I feel really blessed to have had an opportunity to help Father Matt get out his message to a wider audience and to make a difference.

I'm here to serve,

Links to related news stories: Overall, the news coverage of Father Matt's Homily and the response from both parishioner's and the general public was overwhelmingly positive.

Providence Journal Thursday July 19, 2007 Barrington teen's body recovered
Providence Journal Tuesday July 24, 2007 Barrington Priest Decries Denial
Eyewitness News 12 Tuesday July 24, 2007
Providence Journal Wednesday July 25, 2007 Bob Kerr Reverend says what needs to be said
NBC News Channel 10 Providence Wednesday July 25, 2007
RI Catholic July 26, 2007 (p. 9) Priest asks body of Christ to turn away from denial and toward God after teen’s death
Barrington Times Friday July 27 2007 Rev. S. Matthew Glover responds to tragedies

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