Building Chess.com: Part 2 - Putting Pieces Together

Building Chess.com: Part 2 - Putting Pieces Together

erik
erik
Aug 10, 2007, 12:26 AM |
12 | Misc

In the last part I talked about the whole background and beginnings of Chess.com. I was surprised to see that so many people thought this site had been around for a long time :) Well, as you know now, it hasn't. I thought I'd share a few more interesting stories of how the puzzle pieces came together in working on this site.

- Drupal Disaster: I mentioned in my last post that we tried some open-source community software with zero success. That was drupal :) (see http://drupal.org) We had such high hopes! It looked perfect in so many ways. And so I started trying to find people to work on it. I tried to contact drupal project owners and say "hey - i have this great domain chess.com and i think it would be PERFECT for drupal and could really highlight what drupal can do!" Their response? Nothing. I also contacted one of the "Top" drupal implementing companies out there (with a robot in their logo :) and they were so unresponsive that I was embarrassed for them. Then I tried using two different developers to do it, but it became quickly apparent that once you start digging into a platform like drupal you become less of a developer and more of a "configurer", totally hamstrung by the limitations within the software. I felt bad for those guys :( Anyway, I wasted MONTHS on drupal and more money than I want to admit, but I learned some really valuable lessons and it really helped us refine what we wanted. Still, would I ever use drupal for anything? Sure, for a free website for my kids' afterschool club or something. But not to build a scalable enterprise-quality site. 

- Finding Piotr: When I decided we were going to build our own live chess server, I started reaching out to everyone. I went on LinkedIN and messaged everyone I could think of. I looked at every technology out there I could imagine. But one fateful day I decided to google "ajax chess", and found a few sites out there. I contacted the owners or developers behind these and got some mixed responses. Still, I couldn't track down the guy behind the BEST of the ajax chess examples I had seen. I posted in forums and on sites trying to find him. Finally I got that email: "This is Piotr. What can I do for you?" I then told him the vision for Chess.com and he was on board immediately!

- Site Down: Sometimes we release tiny little features here and there quietly on the site. But there are some times when we make HUGE changes that affect the database and touch so many parts of the site that we have to bring everything down for a few seconds. Or, if you make a mistake and don't test everything 100%, for minutes!!! A few weeks ago when we rolled out some big features (Chessopedia, Analysis board, forum updates) we thought the site would come right back up... but it didn't! It was down for a full 20 minutes :( I received 100+ emails reporting that the site was down. I was so nervous I was sweating the whole time trying to answer emails and feeling like I had let everyone down. The site finally came back up after we found the bug, but trust me, there are few things in life as frustrating as knowing you have thousands of people trying to use your website and you can't help them!

- Lost Registrations: Another terrible thing that happened not too long after we launched was that a bug in one of our releases caused everyone who signed up for about a 20 hour period to create a corrupted account and never receive an activation email. We had tested so many aspects of the release, but had neglected to check registration. We lost several hundred potential members of the site. I STILL feel sick about that. :(

- Facebook Chess: If you live in Silicon Valley (like I do), you can't go anywhere without hearing about Facebook. And if you are into websites (like I am), everyone asks you "Are you buidling a facebook app??" The answer was NO, we were too busy building everything else to be able to focus on building anything for facebook. But I realized that somebody already had, and that it had a lot of users! So I contacted the great guy who built it to see if we could work out a deal, and we did :) I paid him some cash for his work, and I also assumed the costs and responsibilities of hosting the site, which he needed desperately. It was a perfect win-win. At some point we'll re-build the facebook app to be more like the Chess.com play now, but that is for the future :)

- Scaling Traffic: Right now our traffic is growing a LOT every day and we are trying to plan for that. We currently run on 5 servers, but we know that we need more and also some load-balancing tools. We'll probably end up leasing some more quad-core dual processor 1950's from Dell with a Cisco balancer. What does that mean? Well it means that we need a whole lot more processing power to serve all the web pages being requested! (It also means "time for Erik to open up the checkbook again....)

- #1 on Google: Getting to the top of search engines is kind of like choreographing a dance while reading a physics textbook and playing a hand of poker all at the same time for weeks or months on end. Nevertheless, thanks to good site design, a good aged domain, and great links from friends and the media, we finally got there. But what is up with Yahoo and MSN? Who knows... maybe if we get more links from our members we can get to the top there too!?

- Wikipedia: Apparently Chess.com isn't worthy of being on the wikipedia entry for "chess". I've seen it listed a few times on the page, but it is always taken down. Go figure!? 

Those are just some of the pieces that are coming together (or not!). There are a LOT more that have to come together to make this site a success - like, Where will the money come from to pay me, jay, piotr, igor, rodney, hunter, and a few others, not to mention the costs of the hardware and bandwidth? and, Will LIVE CHESS be a success? and, Will we continue to attract great chess players who can help mentor less experienced members on this site looking for help? Those are the things that keep me up at night.

I'm not sure that is all that interesting to read about from the outside, but hey, maybe it will be fun for a few. Thanks for reading!

- Erik 

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