Science News

Honeybee dance helps to keep webservers buzzing

Sun, 25th Nov 2007

Scientists from America and Oxford have taken a leaf out of the bee's book in order to boost the efficiency of servers that power websites.

Craig Tovey and Sunil Nakrani were discussing the strategy that bees use to find food when they realised that the clever communication system used by the insects could also help to build better computer systems.  Hives have a limited number of bees and a limited amount of energy and time with which to gather nectar, so they have to be highly efficient in where they choose to deploy their efforts.  Sources of nectar can also change rapidly, with new sources becoming available and other sources drying up.

To get around the problem the insects alert each other to potential sources of food with the use of a waggle dance performed in front of other bees inside the hive.  The direction of the dance indicates in which direction the food lies, the number of turns in the dance conveys how far it is, and the overall length of the dance the sweetness of the nectar.  The watching bees learn the dance and having checked out the nectar source for themselves then return and teach other bees.  But in the meantime, if another nectar source has turned out to be more fruitful, then the original dance is collectively forgotten and the workers pick up the new moves. 

So how does this apply to the Internet? Well, different functions on some websites are driven by different webservers, and if a particular area of a site suddenly experiences heavy demand (the equivalent of bees finding a rich source of nectar), a queue can build up as the server supplying that function struggles to cope with the load; other servers, meanwhile, might well be standing idle.  But the bee-based system developed by Tovey and Nakrani uses a virtual dance floor where servers advertise how busy they are to each other.  The length of the ad determines the magnitude of the load in a particular area.  So when an available server "sees" an ad it helps out, helping to balance out the load and apportion resources where they are most needed to keep websites buzzing along at top speed.

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