"Brussels, we have a problem." That was the message to the paymasters behind Europeana, an Internet portal designed to pool all of Europe's most treasured cultural icons, as it tried unsuccessfully to launch last week.
The official line from the Commission's protocol department is that the website was a victim of its own success. It received more than 10 million hits per hour initially, after anticipating around a third as much.
"It didn't crash; it froze up so that searches took minutes instead of seconds to complete. We decided to take the site down," said Jon Purday, spokesman for Europeana.
However, after speaking to developers and executives involved with the launch last Thursday, it emerges that obvious mistakes were made by the team hosting the website in The Hague, Holland, and fixing the problem will mean the European Commission in Brussels is going to have to cough up almost €100,000 (£84,242) on top of the €1 million launch budget for Europeana, in order to get it ready for relaunch in mid-December.
Purday refused to name the Dutch company that hosted the failed launch. "We are still working with them. They have been trying very hard once they woke up to the scale of the problem," he said.
Nevertheless, he points out that the web host felt the initial estimate of hits per hour, around 3 million, was far too ambitious, and urged the Europeana team to lower its expectations. Instead of buying proper load balancers to handle the web site traffic, the host used virtual, software-based load balancers, which are far less reliable, but are a good deal cheaper.
"We recommended hardware load balancers, but it's a question of money," said Sjoerd Siebinga, one of Europeana's developers. "We didn't have a budget to buy hardware," he said. A pair of proper load balancers cost around €30,000 to €40,000.
In addition to not having the necessary hardware, the company hosting the site coded everything together, making it very difficult to scale up when the onslaught of visits to the web site began. "We were not aware they had coded everything together," Siebinga said.
Why didn't they pull all the images off the web site to get it working? "What's the point? We made thumbnails of all the material – portraits of Mozart, for example. Take them away and there isn't much point going to the web site," Purday said.
As far as the workings of the web site itself are concerned, everything seems to be working normally, Purday said. "It was a huge task getting so much data from so many sources that use totally different technical standards, different languages. Making it all interoperate properly in the same space was a huge feat, and it did work. We were very happy about that," he said.
Europeana is built on a Linux Debian open-source operating system. The programming language is Java, and it uses Apache Tomcat web applications software.
The site houses 2 million items including books, paintings and archive news footage of historic events. The material comes from more than 100 museums, libraries and national archives from around Europe. France has made the biggest contribution to the site so far, but countries in eastern Europe are starting to catch up in the race to digitize their cultural treasures and offer them to this Europe-wide culture portal.
The aim is to have 10 million items on the web site by 2010, Purday said.
On 20 Nov, shortly after the site was launched, there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people accessing the site at the same time.
"This massive interest slowed down the service so much that after having already doubled server capacity, the Europeana management and the Commission had to temporarily take down the site,” the Commission said in a statement.
Many people visiting the web site before it was taken down searched for Leonardo da Vinci's 16th-century portrait of the Mona Lisa, Martin Selmayr, European Commission spokesperson for media, said.
In addition to buying a pair of proper load balancers, Purday said the Europeana team will have to reconfigure the web site to accommodate the new hardware and will conduct "robust test trials" before re-launching next month.
For a demo of the Europeana web site click here