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A Brief History of Microsoft on the Web: Reflections on microsoft.com from Birth to 'Middle Age' - By Dave Kramer

In the beginning, www.microsoft.com was just one computer tucked under a table at the end of a long hallway. It was designed to test Microsoft's first 32-bit Windows implementation of TCP/IP, the software plumbing in Windows that enables Internet communications.

Mark Ingalls with the first rack of microsoft.com Internet servers.Microsoft legend says that this machine once lived under the desk of the site's first official administrator, Mark Ingalls, but like most legends that's only half true. A staging server for microsoft.com was actually housed beneath his desk, and it was relocated because too often Ingalls reached down and turned off the wrong machine by mistake.

Today, microsoft.com is the fourth-largest Web site (per Media Metrix), powered by internal and external servers all over the world and visited by an average of 5 million customers a day. How the site got where it is now in just six high-velocity years is a story of smart decisions, some very public snafus, and all in all, a story we thought you might like to read as we close out 1999.

Six years may not sound like a lot of time, but in "Internet time" that's almost half a lifetime. Internet time is sometimes likened to dog years - the first year is like 14, and every subsequent year is roughly equivalent to seven virtual years. By that reckoning, microsoft.com is pushing 50.

As we prepare to enter the year 2000, it makes sense to reflect on all that has happened since 1994 - the year that microsoft.com launched its public Internet Web domain with a home page. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive account of the early days of Microsoft on the Web, just a short compilation of history and reminisces by some of the "old timers" who helped build the foundation for microsoft.com.

Apologies in advance to all of those whose contributions are not cited. Enjoy!

Humble beginnings
The first Microsoft Internet site was born in early 1993. Group Manager John Martin of Microsoft's Corporate Network Systems group sought and received the charter to post Microsoft support resources, previously available only on a CompuServe forum, to a public FTP server. The site was named gowinnt.microsoft.com in honor of the keyword used to access the forum on CompuServe. It was later changed to ftp.microsoft.com, to better map with Internet naming conventions.

A year later, in 1994, the group sought to expand the support offerings to include gopher and Web servers. Emphasis was originally placed on the more mature gopher protocol, which offered limited text-only browsing with a menu-like interface and searching via WAIS gateway, a primitive predecessor to the modern search engine.

Mark Ingalls recalls that when he first typed www.microsoft.com into a Web browser to ensure it hadn't already been claimed, he was surprised to find a site already there. He traced the site to pioneering Microsoft developer J Allard, who had claimed the server name to test out his new TCP/IP networking stack. The first recorded Microsoft Web server was situated at the end of a hallway in one of the older buildings on campus. Allard agreed to pass the server to the product support group, and it was eventually relocated to a lonely corner of the Microsoft corporate data center.

"Star Map" - click to enlarge The servers started delivering content on Windows NT 3.1 using the European Microsoft Windows Academic Consortium (EMWAC) WWW server software. Ingalls and his ragtag crew converted much of the patchwork content for the site themselves using an automated rich text-to-HTML process, and spent the balance of their time evangelizing the Web site's benefits throughout the company.

"You had to convince people that HTML was worth their time," Ingalls noted. But in just more than a year, the group was fielding too many requests. Despite the primitive nature of the Internet site, it was wildly successful - to the point where Bill Gates himself commented in a May 1995 memo that "amazingly, it is easier to find information on the Web than it is to find information on the Microsoft Corporate Network."

It was obvious that the Web was here to stay.

Off-ramp ahead
The Microsoft Developer Network created one of the first fully fleshed out Web sites on microsoft.com: the MSDN OffRamp, so-named because it was expected that developers would appreciate the metaphor of easy-off, easy-on access to information. This was an important milestone: Prior to the site launch in 1994 - and for some time after - most content on the Microsoft Web site was disconnected clumps of promotional and support documents with no common navigation or branding.

The site was based around MSDN News, a quarterly print and CD-ROM-based publication. The CD's content was authored in SGML, a formatting technology related to HTML. "HTML was like a subset of everything we'd been doing, and it was a natural next step," said Andy Himes, who drove the effort.

The MSDN site was unusual because it had a business plan and a small budget for graphic design. The team spent the summer of 1994 developing a specification, coding the site, and testing it prior to launch. Despite all of the careful groundwork, "nothing worked out as well as planned," Himes noted.

The problem? Within a few days of the launch, the MSDN team realized that updating the site quarterly wasn't nearly often enough to satisfy a hungry Internet audience. The plan was revised to update monthly, then weekly, and finally daily.

"It took us about a year before we were updating content every day," Himes added.

Whoops!
Toddlers inevitably suffer a few stumbles as they learn to walk and microsoft. com was no exception. Notes Kimberly Hope, one of the first Web builders hired by microsoft.com: "There's not some omniscient force behind the site, it's people in their offices doing this stuff."

Consider, then, our blooper reel:
  • Mark Ingalls recalls how he mistakenly deleted the live default.htm file that served as the microsoft.com home page, in the days before staging servers. While home page visitors were receiving File Not Found errors, Ingalls rooted around in his browser cache - where the cache filenames did NOT map to their real names - to find and restore the page to active duty.

  • The predecessor to MSNBC, known then as MSN News, was first published prematurely when a member of the production team, sitting up on a desk to study a schematic, clicked a mouse button with his derriere. The team watched in horror as the content went live to a public server before it was ready.

  • For the Internet Explorer 3.0 launch, the product support team released a fully overhauled knowledge base. However, their production environment didn't mirror the Web server, and the site was published without running a vital script that adjusted the drive letter used for the access point on the live Web machines. When customers tried to search the knowledge base, they'd get errors instead of results.

  • A vendor who had only a passing knowledge of microsoft.com coding policies delivered the first Windows CE site. The first test on the site with Weblint, a tool used to check validity of HTML, returned 100 pages of errors. There was a harried pre-Comdex weekend in November 1996 where every link and quite a bit of other code on the several hundred page site was manually recoded by a handful of people so it could be published in time for Bill Gates' Sunday night keynote.

  • The first try at personalization on microsoft.com, with a home page that marked headlines as read once a user had clicked them, wasn't tested for scalability to a large Internet audience. The technology worked fine on an internal Microsoft intranet site, so it was simply ported to the live site. It wasn't long before the feature was removed due to its decimating impact on live Web servers.
Windows 95: A turning point
A year after the MSDN OffRamp launch, microsoft.com was ramping up for one of the most important launches in company history. Around this mid-1995 timeframe, the microsoft.com Web servers were migrated to a pre-release version of Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) because the EMWACS servers were straining to keep up with the burgeoning server loads.

"Rolling out IIS to microsoft.com prior to releasing it to customers has always been an important requirement," noted developer John Ludeman. "There's no testing that can be done that's equivalent to the environment of live Internet traffic. That motto still exists - all of microsoft.com was running IIS 5.0 before Windows 2000 was released."

"Collage" - click to enlargeA new home page design, dubbed "Collage," was developed to replace the Star Map imagery. As crowds massed for "Midnight Madness" outside computer retailers and talk show host Jay Leno arrived in Seattle to emcee the Windows 95 launch extravaganza, the Web site team was treated to a steak dinner in the midst of a harried, sleepless night preparing for the anticipated throngs of curious launch-day Web site visitors.

The Web site initially had been launched on one server with no redundancy, but was soon upgraded to two servers to handle the traffic. "When we went from one to two servers, we thought we were done," said John Martin. "We had no idea what we were up against."

For the Windows 95 launch, a third Web server was added in Redmond and complemented by some distributed vendor servers used to handle traffic for the launch. "The Windows 95 group didn't have much faith in us, probably rightly so - looking at it in retrospect, because that launch was a huge deal," Ingalls mused. "Tents are up all over the place, and Jay Leno is driving around campus in a golf cart!"

Jay Goldstein remembers a less glamorous side to the launch: the 90-hour work weeks that he and Linda Leste put in during the months leading up to the launch of the first comprehensive product site on microsoft.com. "Nobody knew what it meant to do any of this stuff," Goldstein recalled. "I'm a product manager, and I was doing HTML. There wasn't anyone to go to."

Despite all of the preparations, the launch didn't come off as cleanly as planned. An interaction of third-party browser bugs and the pre-release version of Microsoft's Internet server software yielded a disastrous combination: a two-byte discrepancy in registration data started causing servers to crash. "John Ludeman and I are sitting in the corporate data center with debuggers attached to both registration Web servers, trying to keep them alive," said Ingalls. "I'm on no sleep at this point, standing there watching a developer debug source code."

The team prevailed - eventually, and learned a valuable lesson about testing and capacity planning that helped shape the era to come. Afterwards, the proud Web operations staff wore T-shirts they had printed with the slogan, "Sleep make you weak."

"Back then, we did everything. Now you have entire teams devoted to what we did," noted Steve Heaney, an Internet systems engineer for the early Web site.

continued...




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Last Updated: December 24, 1999