Remembering – AltaVista

Long before Google became a search engine, or even a word associated with the internet, the surfers of the early and mid-nineties were spoiled for choice. We had WebCrawler, Lycos, Excite, Dogpile and Ask Jeeves; some of these are still around in one form or another. However, the king of the nineties search engine war was without a doubt AltaVista.

This remarkable search engine boasted a web page indexing value of over 20 million, which back then was a pretty huge number in internet terms. With AltaVista you could find things on the evolving internet that others simply couldn’t.

AltaVista had its widespread search crawler to thank for its popularity. Scooter, as it was called, was able to crawl far more pages than actually existed at the time, and it did so remarkably quickly too. Add to that a power back end sever setup – made up of five separate AlphaStation computers, as produced by DEC and running Tru64 UNIX – and the search engine was leagues ahead of the opposition.

altavista 1

The company behind AltaVista, initially a group from DEC, also had access to virtually unlimited bandwidth at its headquarters in Palo Alto. A fact that undoubtedly contributed to the search engine’s capabilities and subsequent popularity.

But, sadly, the internet grew to universal proportions, and with various buy-outs, changing company fortunes and the rise and fall of financial bubbles, AltaVista was slowly put to rest while the mighty Google began its rise.

AltaVista’s history

AltaVista was founded in mid-1995 by Paul Flaherty, Louis Monier and Michael Burrows, all researchers and engineers at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation).

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The team had access to near unlimited hardware, and powerful stuff too (as mentioned, in the form of the AlphaStations, DEC 3000 M900 and Alpha Server), and of course the high bandwidth line straight to the internet. It was the webcrawler that really made the search engine so good, though. Designed and written by Burrows, Scooter was a multi-threaded crawler that integrated with a natural language query engine that allowed users to add or delete their own URL within any 24-hour period. This made AltaVista both quick and as close to up to date as imaginable in an ever growing internet-enabled world.

In 1998 DEC was bought out by Compaq, which altered the state of AltaVista considerably. For one, the company changed the domain name to Altavista.com, as opposed to having us type in www.altavista.digital.com. Secondly Compaq boosted the hardware behind the search engine, opting for the new generation 24-processor mini-supercomputers.

All good, but Compaq did make one mistake: it turned AltaVista into a web portal and sold it off to CMGI, now known as Steel Connect. CMGI hoped that as a portal it would compete with Yahoo, but the company fell foul of the dot-com crash.

Overture Services then purchased what was left of AltaVista after the dot-com crash, but it proved too much and Overture was bought mere months later by Yahoo.

Yahoo tried to rebrand it, and merge AltaVista with its own search engine, but by now, 2003, Google had a firm foot in the search engine door and wasn’t about to budge over for a former internet leader.

On June 28th 2013, Yahoo finally announced that AltaVista would be terminated on July 8th; with all requests being forwarded to Yahoo’s search page. A sad end to a once magnificent internet companion.

The good

You could find anything, and it’ll likely still be a live webpage too.

The bad

Often used for more nefarious websites back in the day. Warez sites didn’t quite have the policing they do now.

Did you know..?

  • Just before Overture bought AltaVista, the offices were mostly empty. A former worker placed a skeleton in a chair in front of one of the workstations, much to the amusement of any visiting journalists.
  • The main AltaVista site was hosted in an AlphaStation 250, with a 4GB hard drive, and 196MB of memory.
  • The news server was on an AlphaStation 400 with a 24GB drive and 160MB of memory.
  • The news indexer was on another AlphaStation 250 with a 13GB drive and 196MB of memory.
  • The Spider was on a DEC 3000 Model 900, with 30GB RAID drive, and 1GB of memory.
  • And, finally, the indexer was housed on an Alpha Server 8400 four processor machine, with 210GB of RAID storage and 4GB of memory.

David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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