WolframAlpha suffers last minute launch hitch

Will new knowledge engine WolframAlpha launch tonight?
Will new knowledge engine WolframAlpha launch tonight?

WolframAlpha, the much anticipated computational knowledge engine that promises to revolutionise online searching, hit technical snags on Friday, raising doubts that it would launch today.

As the promised launch time (1am UK time) came and went, the WolframAlpha home page (www.wolframalpha.com) was still displaying the 'Launching May 2009...' teaser that it has been carrying for the past few weeks. The company's blog is also down, as we post.

Cnet is reporting that the final simulations of the knowledge engine - which allows users to compute factual data from thousands of online data sources using plain English - showed that the large numbers of users that Wolfram Research is expecting to trial the service could cause it to fail.

Last minute panic

In an interview with the LA Times, founder Dr Stephen Wolfram said, "We have several supercomputer-class compute clusters. One of our tests was to use one cluster to simulate traffic and run it against the other cluster. And when we did that last night, we found that the throughput degraded horribly when we increased the amount of traffic that we were pushing from one cluster to the other."

Despite this, a video showing a countdown to the launch has gone live. With an upbeat welcome from Dr Stephen Wolfram, the video highlights the company's concerns with such a high profile launch. Co-founder of Wolfram Research Theo Gray said, "This has never tried before and it's quite possible that in the process we'll learn why it's not been done before."

Gray continued: "If we do melt down when we go live it will not be through lack of effort or through a naive idea of how many queries we're likely to get. There are so many things that can go wrong with this system, it's a very intricate system. Just to add some spice, there are thunderstorms predicted and we get power failures all the time from thunderstorms."

The preview site of WolframAlpha, which TechRadar used for its hands on preview of the service, is still up and running.

UPDATE: WolframAlpha should launch later tonight

The company's blog now says that the team is now "in the final stages of our countdown. Tonight, we're looking to begin to test the system on a larger scale, get a sense of how it will behave, and continue performance tuning."

It goes on to say that they will be switching on more and more compute capacity, with the expectation of having full capacity available on Monday.

One final update - the thunderstorms have now been upgraded to a tornado warning. As the blog says, "It will be an interesting evening."