Building up an e-business block by block

SAN MATEO (02/26/2001) - As chairman, co-founder, and CTO of Xuma Inc., Jamie Lerner is building an infrastructure for deploying e-business applications. To accomplish that goal, Xuma has put in place a disciplined IT architecture that gives customers of the ASP (application service provider) a platform that is reliable as well as flexible. In an interview with InfoWorld Editor in Chief Michael Vizard, Lerner talks about the critical role that component architectures play in building scalable applications on the Internet.

InfoWorld: How do you describe Xuma?

Lerner: We provide basically a hardware/ software network infrastructure that allows people to build e-businesses very quickly and very efficiently. Building Web systems is fundamentally an efficient process, but it tends to cost a lot of money -- more than you typically budget -- and it tends to take too long.

InfoWorld: How does Xuma facilitate the process?

Lerner: The main issue is there's no consistent technology that integrates all of these technologies and allows a company to weave together the 80 or 90 third-party pieces of technology that need to be synchronized to build an e-business system. What Xuma has done is to introduce the concept of the solution stack; we stack together all of the data-center components, all of the managed services and network components, all of the hardware and third-party software, and Xuma software that ties all of these things together. We then roll that whole thing out as one stack product, called Commerce-X, which has a basic configuration and setup charge and an ongoing monthly charge.

InfoWorld: How does this stack architecture play out when bringing on a new application?

Lerner: When we bring something in the stack, we want to integrate it and that means several things. In March, we'll be integrating an e-CRM [electronic customer relationship management] package. That doesn't mean that we take a Siebel and we just throw it down on a computer. What we do is create a single sign-on architecture, so when you're administering or using the site, you log on once and then weave through as many as 25 software programs without relogging in.

We also solve the data overlap problem. If you look at integrating something like Siebel, one of the biggest complexities is, for example, my name, my address, my e-mail, and my phone number inside Siebel. But it's probably also inside the e-commerce system. It's also in the auctioning system, and probably in the corporate CRM system and the corporate ERP [enterprise resource planning] system. What happens when you change that address is that the Xuma architecture goes through all those systems and makes sure they are all updated. We actually take the third-party software and weave hooks into it. We can monitor the database, the transaction throughput, the general health of the system, and then we write our own code that extends and ties it to other things. We build an operational model around it.

InfoWorld: How do you coach your customers to take advantage of the stack?

Lerner: Our architecture is built like Lego blocks. It's a component-based architecture. It helps our system integration partners build systems very quickly because they can add business features onto our architecture very easily. We're trying to encourage some of our partners to begin to write vertically focused components that they can layer on top of Commerce-X. We could have a specific version of Commerce-X for an industry that we've codeveloped with someone who has credibility in that industry.

InfoWorld: What do most people fail to understand about Web operations?

Lerner: People really underestimate the fact that the ongoing management of the site tends to cost a lot more than it does to initially build . A lot of people simply do not look at that.

The worst case is you build a system by hand, and then every time a new patch comes out from a vendor you never thought about, it's going to break all of your code. You end up five years from now locked into a system that's 5 years old because you never were able to upgrade. That's part of the role we play and why we run datacenter operations.

We upgrade all of our customers as part of the standard service offering, and we're thinking about those upgrades all the time. One IT department having to do that would bear tremendous expense, whereas we do it on behalf of our [more than] 80 customers. There's great economies for us doing that.

InfoWorld: How tied to you are those customers?

Lerner: All of our customers run on their dedicated equipment; they run in their own environment. It's not like we've got some massive ASP model. They each have their own equipment, their own architecture. If they want to, they have the option of picking up that whole system and moving it. A lot of our competitors sort of lock their customers in, whereas we have a very open model where the customers know that they have the flexibility to move out.

InfoWorld: Where do you host these applications?

Lerner: We partner with Level 3. Xuma builds our own four walls within those facilities. We put in all of our own networking equipment and run our own network facility. All we get from Level 3 is facility and bandwidth. The facilities are between 300 and 500 racks large. There's one in San Francisco, one in Sunnyvale [Calif.], one in New York. They're staffed 24 hours a day.

InfoWorld: What's your biggest challenge?

Lerner: Keeping 80 to 100 pieces of software, hardware, and network stuff all synced up is the biggest challenge. It would be nice to see a little bit of a slowdown in the revision cycle. One of the things we're seeing is vendors doing releases almost every 90 days. What we do is evaluate and maintain best of breed. It's a big challenge when the best-of-breed products are literally swapping leadership positions maybe once or twice a year.

InfoWorld: How has the change in the economy affected you?

Lerner: The slowdown was sort of a mixed blessing. The whole activity in the space has slowed down. The good news is that the people who survived the slowdown will be the companies that will last.

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