French Rail Site Balances Load With U.S. Software

Product helps keep train data on track

Philippe Galtier, webmaster at Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF), the Paris-based rail-transport system, says he knows the value of load-balancing software.

Last winter, cold weather caused a variety of technical problems for trains arriving at one key gate at a Paris station.

"We couldn't get service to a very important gate, and the Web site was the best way to check on the problem" and follow schedule changes, Galtier said. Web traffic to SNCF.com soared during that period, but everything "worked well, really well," because load-balancing software was able to shift traffic back and forth between two Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris Web servers, he said.

In a normal week, the French Web site handles 200 million visitors, who can purchase tickets, plan itineraries and check departure and arrival times.

Affordable, Easy to Use

SNCF.com first installed load-balancing software in 1998. It picked SafeKit from BullSoft, now Evidian in Billerica, Mass., partly because it was cost-efficient and easy to configure, said Galtier and Christophe Duplaix, a security manager at the transport firm.

The software "protects us from portal disruption caused by overloads and equipment failures. It really is plug-and-play," said Galtier.

Evidian officials said that if any server is shut down or fails, the remaining servers assume the traffic in less than three seconds. SafeKit uses a patented, single virtual IP address mechanism so that companies can automatically distribute and balance application loads on as many servers as needed.

Analysts also said the approach is unusual because it prevents points of failure at each level of a system, from the network to the application. Load balancing can be done through software, switching hardware or specialized appliance hardware. SafeKit is unusual in that it relies on software only, while the recent buying trend is toward switching, said Stan Schatt, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif.

The biggest software load-balancing competitor that Evidian faces in the U.S. is Resonate Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., Schatt said. Although SafeKit might be less expensive than products from Resonate, Evidian must still find a distribution network, he added.

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