The CDnow Data Center, Circa 2000

cdnow_datacenter_2000
The CDnow Data Center, Circa 2000 Credit: Phillip Pollard

A former co-worker uploaded this panaroma of the CDnow data center in Fort Washington. This data center holds a spcial place in my heart, as it was the first “proper” data center I ever had access to. Prior to that, I’d been running servers (mainly AIX and SGI Iris Indigos) out of offices on Penn’s campus.

CDnow's Home Page, April 13, 1998
CDnow’s Home Page: My First Project to Implement at CDnow, April 13, 1998. Click through to read about how it was “painstakingly designed to serve the customer”, and have a good laugh at early UX on the web.

It was quite a beauty for its day. CDnow started off as a Telnet store, back in the days when people did not even consider the danger of sending your credit card details without encryption. When the CDnow web site was developed, there were not many mature web servers available, so the founders wrote their own in C, called “mserver” (or, Matt’s server, after Matt Olim, co-founder). On top of C, Matt started a language called SDK (Site Development Kit), a scripting language tied to Oracle which did many things far ahead of its time.

It was a fun time, being able to contribute your own functions to a language that was constantly growing and evolving. Eventually, the language was converted to a CGI running on Apache Web Server, httpd. All of this was powered by this data center, and CDnow went on to become one of the early pioneers in E-commerce, years before anyone had heard of Amazon.

The data center featured a lot of Sun machines. We had a suite of E4000s running Solaris 5.1, some Linux machines that served as caching servers (and their two related functions, “codeInclude” and “cacheInclude” in SDK), and our work horse server, a Cray-Cyber Sun Starfire E10000. The initial servers were named after obscure characters from the original Beavis and Butthead (Jodie, Tanq(ueray), Lolitta [sic], McVicker, Daria, and Anderson to name a few), with future servers going the Transformers route (Megatron, Starscream, etc).

With all that said, what really made CDnow was the environment and the co-workers. We had a drum set in the lobby, our own cafeteria with short-order cooks, a gym, showers, and much more. All of the conference rooms were named after famous musicians; I think the Bob Marley room was the most popular, and the data center, with glass on all sides, was dubbed the fish bowl. It was quite an adventure ensuring the site remained up during Hurricane Floyd – the last two employees out had to be taken to their spouses by canoe!

Just last year, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the end of CDnow (the sale to Amazon), about 70 of us gathered back in Philadelphia at Frankford Hall to celebrate, share old tales, memories of several friends who had passed, and remember one of the best work environments we ever experienced. The fact so many of us stay in touch after so long on a regular basis is a testament to how wonderful a company it was.