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Building Scalable Web Sites

Cal Henderson
Published by O'Reilly Media
352 pages
£ 28.50
Published: 26 May 2006
reviewed by Sam Smith
   in the September 2006 issue (pdf), (html)

Building Scalable Web Sites is not just about web sites. If you've not heard of, the photo sharing website, go have a look and then come back and read this review. I'll wait.

So, you know what flickr is -- the photo sharing website that's taking over the world, and has a vast number of fans due to the APIs it offers and the ability to almost anything with your, and other peoples', photos. Flickr is a posterchild for the revolution Tim O'Reilly calls ``Web 2.0'' of services and small sites loosely joined...

I've heard something like that before talking about a highly successful system.

The book covers all the lessons from building flickr - both the software itself and all the associated infrastructure that goes with it. And that is where the significant value from this book comes for those who don't build web applications. Cal covers in some detail the tradeoffs that were there, with a brief note on what was chosen for this application, and how it could be very different for other applications. Cal also gives a talk version of this book which is highly recommended should you ever get the chance to hear it. The passion and knowledge with which Cal comes out throughout the book.

Incredibly concise but detailed are the many discussions of the tradeoffs that come from using different infrastructure pieces through the wide angle lense of someone who has been there and built the large systems. Sections of the book include topics such as ``statistics, monitoring and alerting'' which are applicable no matter your application, and are widely useful even in much more conventional environments. An entire section on ``Development Environments'' covers the benefits of source control, and the benefits that come form it, and the way that flickr integrates source control into their processes. How to identify bottlenecks in services is also covered, including some suggestions on how not to fix them.

For web applications there is significant concise detail of internationalisation and localisation; ensuring that you don't create common holes in your code; and the issues of scaling. All these are relatively critical issues which it's important to have a basic awareness of in a web environment, and some more so than others in other environments.

What this book gives, possibly uniquely, is both a look at the whole spectrum of building a service and some details of all the major stages. It's ideal to give to someone who has a tight focus or experience on a particular area, e.g. writing lines and lines of PHP code which kills the database or filer because the author has little appreciation of what happens at other levels of the system structure. This book would make an ideal guide to people who need to be given some indications of the world beyond a small area. It's also a good read for those who build web sites which may potentially get a large volume of traffic to learn from flickr and why they made the decisions they made.

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