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Food Pyramid Leaves Users Hungry

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published its new "food pyramid" earlier this week, a revolutionary guideline for eating that lets people customize the data to fit their age, body type and activity level. There was one little problem with the unveiling, though: the USDA Web site was almost completely inaccessible for the first 72 hours of its online life.

The new food pyramid site logged 160 million hits in its first three days, 20 percent of them from outside the country. The rush of traffic completely overloaded the site's servers, leaving users unable to access the new data until additional server could be added nearly 72 hours after the site's debut. (see

The USDA's glitch is another in a long line of Web site failures that have occurred in the last decade due to poor capacity planning by site creators. The publication of Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton's sexual activities with Monica Lewinsky brought two government sites to a standstill for several days. Major news sites were routinely brought down by major events in the early days of online news reporting. My favorite is Victoria's Secret, which advertised a streaming video lingerie show following the Super Bowl one year -- and site operators were surprised when the site failed due to a traffic overload.

The fact is that there is simply no excuse for such overloads in today's technology environment. Load balancing technology is as good as it has ever been. There are numerous Web hosting services that are only too happy to provide overload capacity for highly active sites. Performance management monitoring and trending tools provide solid predictions on future traffic loads. The USDA was simply too shortsighted -- or too cheap -- to take advantage of these technologies. And, sadly, it likely won't be the last enterprise to make that mistake.