NorthScale Memcached Server Speeds Farmville

The distributed data caching specialist supplies the data management muscle behind Zynga's Farmville and Mafia Wars social networking games.
NorthScale manages data needed by a large Web application dealing with thousands of concurrent end users. It distributes and manages it across the unused portions of memory of a large server cluster.

One of its first customers is the Zynga Game Network, maker of the popular Mafia Wars, Farmville, and Caf World social networking games. Zynga games now attract 235 million users a month. The firm is a user of the memcached open source code system that distributes needed data across a server cluster.

Zynga recognized that NorthScale had several of the key developers involved in the project on its payroll. Zynga has installed NorthScale's supported version of memcached, the NorthScale Memcached Server, and CTO Cadir Lee said in a statement on the firm's Web site, "We have tremendous respect for the team at NorthScale. Our internal work to extend memcached matched closely with their vision... We expect to improve the performance and availability of our games while reducing hardware and administrative costs as we continue to transition data from relational databases."

Lee's comments supported NorthScale's announcement of its first product March 16. He is one of the new voices of Web-sized data management problems, one who is migrating away from traditional relational database toward cloud-style, massive data handling systems.

Unlike relational database, they scale out by being distributed across additional servers in a server cluster, rather than by scaling up to a larger, more powerful single server.

NorthScale, a young Mountain View, Calif., company with $5 million in initial venture capital backing, is one of several firms emerging with expertise in the field. It was founded last year and is staffed by Trond Norbye, senior software engineer, and Dustin Sallings, chief architect, who are the two largest contributors to the popular memcached open source code project.

The company also employs Steve Yen as CTO, another big contributor and the former co-founder of Kiva Software, maker of a Java application server that reached the scale needed by eTrade, Bank of America, and the Sabre flight reservation system. Kiva was sold to Netscape, later merged with Sun's application server efforts.

James Phillips, chief strategy officer or the man at the top of the heap in a modern, flattened organization, says NorthScale developers have produced "60% of the lines of code behind memcached and lead the current project."

Zynga, he said, "looked at every NoSQL system out there," but as existing users of memcached, "it was a no-brainer step" to make the transition to NorthScale Memcached Server. The product is based on the readily available open source code and is supported by a $799 annual subscription covering business hours or a $1,299 subscription covering all hours.

Customers of the NorthScale product, however, are not necessarily "NoSQL-style" rejectors of relational databases. "In some cases, our Memcached Server comes in and works alongside the relational database, relieving some of the load," Phillips said.

NorthScale is currently working with Zynga on the firm's second product, Membase, a way to persistently store and retrieve data used by games and other large Web applications.

Games and other applications dealing with large numbers of Web site visitors generate masses of data that is not going to be relied upon for transactions, such as the moves the player made. But it is still important to the individual user, and ultimately, to the site's relationship with that user. Such data can be store in the database-like systems that can be spread across large server clusters and be reproduced with great speed upon demand for the data, said Phillips.

Membase is not yet available and no date has been set for its general release. It is also in beta use at the NHN site, a leading children's search, and gaming site in South Korea with 46 million users.

In addition to the pending Membase, several distributed data storage and retrieval systems are already available, including: Voldemort, Cassandra, CouchDB, MongoDB and SimpleDB at Amazon Web Services' EC2.