Wolfram Alpha, a “computational knowledge engine” that answers queries by tapping databases and running calculations instead of searching the Web, went live on Friday night and managed to avoid crashing over the weekend and on Monday, the first full business day of operation.
The engine was launched on schedule despite failing a large-scale traffic simulation test earlier on Friday. The site quickly began receiving 100 hits per second, a figure that climbed steadily over the weekend. As of early Monday morning, the company said that Wolfram Alpha had processed a total of 13.7 million queries from six continents and had received 27,000 responses to requests for feedback.
Some people used the engine to view nearly real-time information about a small earthquake that struck Southern California on Sunday, the company said. (Google can now provide the same information using news feeds from the U.S. Geological Service.) Meanwhile, Facebook users suggested search terms for each other to try. The site did not always function as planned, however. Queries were sometimes answered with error messages citing overloads. And today is expected to bring even more traffic.
Whereas search engines like Google use algorithms to find Web pages that are deemed most relevant to a particular query, Wolfram Alpha interprets the query, accesses its own databases, and calculates answers. If a user enters a term such as “GDP of France and Mexico,” it returns not a list of Web pages but relevant data compared and organized into tables, charts, and graphics. Data is stored in databases maintained by Wolfram Research and computed and visualized using the company’s math software package Mathematica. (See a comparison of how Google and Wolfram Alpha treat the same queries here.)
Stephen Wolfram, the 49-year-old founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, gave Friday’s events a theatrical touch by deciding to webcast the launch, which took place inside the company’s control center in an industrial building in central Illinois. At 10:35 P.M. local time, with the cameras taping, he mouse-clicked a tab that said “Activate,” and the company’s data centers began processing requests.