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WolframAlpha launch runs into 'a small snag,' says creator [UPDATED]

May 15, 2009 | 12:33 pm

Updated, 4:00 p.m.: WolframAlpha says it is "counting down" and will go ahead with the soft launch tonight despite earlier problems.  The project expects to be at full capacity by Monday. "Our teams are full-court-press resolving network, infrastructure, database, and all sorts of other challenges," they wrote in a blog post late Friday.

The live feed of the launch is embedded here.

The much-anticipated WolframAlpha knowledge engine has run into a technical snag that may delay its launch, initially scheduled to be broadcast live today at 5 p.m. PDT / 8 p.m. EDT.

In an interview today, Stephen Wolfram, the creator of the site -- five years in the making -- said a large-scale traffic simulation test had failed. 

“We ran into a small snag, which hopefully won’t turn into a big snag," he said.

"We have several supercomputer-class compute clusters. One of our tests was to use one cluster to simulate traffic and run it against the other cluster. And when we did that last night, we found that the through-put we got degraded horribly when we increased the amount of traffic that we were pushing from one cluster to the other.

"So we don’t quite understand that, and that would very much degrade the through-put that we could get."

Wolfram and two colleagues at Wolfram Research in Champaign, Ill., posted a YouTube video on Thursday announcing their plans to bring the system online during a live webcast. The project, they said, will be running in five data centers totaling 10,000 CPUs, an array that they thought could handle thousands of queries every second. 

Wolfram's colleague, Theodore Gray, explained the team's trepidation about launching such a large project live:

"It's a very intricate and complicated system," Gray said. "Servers could go down. And just to add a little spice, the weather report is saying there are thunderstorms predicted.  In this part of the country we get power failures all the time during thunderstorms. There's just an amazing number of things that could go wrong. And whatever it is that goes wrong, you're going to get to see it live as it happens."

"We've been able to surmount every obstacle," Wolfram added in the video (below).  "We'll be able to get the thing launched."

-- David Sarno

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