E-comm survival guide

Here's one that may sound familiar. A guy from the marketing department knocks on a network executive's door. "Hey, we're setting up a Web site, and we've got vendors coming in five minutes - want to join us in the conference room?" the marketing guy asks.

That's a true story told by Linda Rossetti, CEO of EMaven, a US consulting firm Unfortunately, situations like this are all too common.

Never mind the Sharks and the Jets. Today's rumbles are between the Chefs and the Plumbers.

The Chefs are from the marketing department. They're liable to whip up an e-commerce effort with little planning, less notice and absolutely no knowledge of the project's technical ramifications.

The Plumbers are the IT managers or network executives. All too often, they're not called in until there's a catastrophe - the Web site gets overloaded by sudden demand that should have been planned for but wasn't, or marketing demands a thousand and one new ways to slice and dice data.

The Chefs taunt the Plumbers: "Just make it work, OK?"

The Plumbers close in on the Chefs: "You gotta be kidding. If you'd called us in earlier, we could've avoided this mess."

Things can get pretty ugly.

With so many e-commerce initiatives spearheaded by marketing, it's easy for network and IT departments to get left out of the loop. Unrealistic expectations about easy Internet access abound; CEOs read airline magazines urging them not to trust the techies with the Web site. Marketing departments promise the CEO the moon - and soon.

"When Web sites first went up a few years ago, they were done by one guy," says Herb VanHook, vice president of service-management strategies at Meta Group. "Now, the content and the infrastructure are split. There's a cultural divide. It's hard to cross that chasm."

Hard, maybe, but not impossible. Battle-hardened IT and network executives can work with, not against, marketing. It's possible to become one of the Chefs - while offering plumbing tips where needed.

As Rand McNally & Co prepares to overhaul its randmcnally.com Web site, Larry Silverman counts his blessings. As director of Internet development, Silverman is in charge of the online division's technical direction. His marketing counterpart Jen Berger, director of product development, has a systems-development background. "When I ask for a function or feature," she says, "I know what's involved."

Silverman adds, "When I say we can't have something for six months because we have to build it ourselves, she understands."

Not all IT and network managers are as fortunate as Silverman. In most instances, communication between network executives and the marketing department is limited.

David Cameron, senior director of systems integration at Wheelhouse, a consulting company that specialises in e-marketing, calls this problem the "semantic disconnect". He recalls a recent meeting with a client, in which marketing and IT representatives were asked four questions:

* What is a customer?

* What is a product?

* What is your distribution channel?

* What is your partner strategy?

The meeting was scheduled to last an hour. How long did it take marketing and IT to agree on the answers? "Days," Cameron says.

Marketing and IT found it nearly impossible to agree on terms. For instance, in trying to define customers, marketing people might answer, "Anybody who visits the site", Cameron says. "Marketers don't see that what they're counting are session cookies, not customers."

The disconnect got worse when products were addressed. "The marketing people said, 'Sure, we know what a product is'," Cameron says. "They thought they had 15 [products]. But IT said, 'Wait, the product system incorporates 50 attributes.'" As far as IT was concerned, each of marketing's 15 products had 50 possible variants - and each was a product."

"We had to boil that down," Cameron says.

Another company where marketing and IT work together is Inc.com, an e-commerce spinoff of Boston's Inc. magazine. According to Paige Arnoff-Fenn, Inc.com's vice-president of marketing, open lines of communication at all levels were key to the successful launch. "I work very closely with our technical director," she says. "We make sure we know what we're talking about."

For Inc.com, that meant marketing and IT conducted research as a team - for example, observing focus groups together, a practice Arnoff-Fenn calls invaluable. Listening to target customers' wish lists forced the team to "clearly articulate in nontechie terms what we were trying to accomplish", she says.

Talk to enough network managers and other experts, and the following advice emerges:

Start before the beginning

If marketing launches an informational Web site and you keep it at arm's length, you're missing a golden opportunity to get involved. Many network managers check occasionally on such pages to make sure there are no disasters but are otherwise happy to stay out of the loop.

It's a natural reaction, but it's a mistake. You need a seat at the table when the shift from online brochure to true transactional site is being considered.

"You can do informational things without IT," says Mike Gerrard, a research director at Gartner, "but when you try to transact, that's when disaster hits."

The earlier you're involved in the process, the better chance you have to help marketing understand the risks, rewards and ramifications of launching a true commerce site.

Talk it up

Many businesses agonise over whether to set up a committee to attack e-commerce plans. Such a committee may be informal or structured.

Wheelhouse's Cameron advises companies to build "combo teams" composed of marketing and IT people. But he also cautions that "people go in [to such committees] thinking, 'This is great', but committees are built around consensus, and consensus requires compromise. By the time the group's really chartered it's watered down. People get frustrated."

But not always. At Inc.com, the informal e-commerce committee helped people from both sides see where they needed to work. "When the tech team and the marketing team got in the same room, we saw that our systems were not integrated. We saw where the holes were," Arnoff-Fenn says.

Before Detroit's General Motors created its new online division, e-GM, the company formed a committee representing IT, marketing, sales, business development and other groups, according to Rick Kish, e-GM's chief information officer. "They pretty much took the best of each group, then filled in with experts from other areas," Kish says.

Experts do advise creating e-commerce committees, but only if they're accountable. "Otherwise, everybody nods and goes their own way," says Linda Rossetti, CEO at e-strategy firm EMaven. "The best committees have an agreed-upon project plan. Committees without accountability are a waste of time."

Wear the customer's shoes

If you find yourselves at an impasse with marketing, experts agree the best way to break the log-jam is to view the problem through the customer's eyes. "Sure, you can get off the track," e-GM's Kish says. "That's when you must focus on the customer. Ask, 'What are we trying to deliver, and for whom?'"Randmcnally.com's Berger agrees. "We put the customer at the centre," she says. "We want to build what the customer wants."

Treat the project like a project

Once an e-commerce group exists, whether it's formal or not, the network group can really show off. Chances are, the marketing department doesn't really know how to run a project. This is partly a function of personality - marketing tends to attract big thinkers who excel at clean-sheet-of-paper thinking, but not at follow-though.

Network executives, on the other hand, tend to thrive on project management, a cornerstone discipline of the IT profession. Setting goals, defining milestones and deliverables, leaning on people to hit deadlines, understanding interdependencies - all are facets of "classic" IT project management, Rossetti says. "Marketing doesn't necessarily follow those rules. And even if they follow them, they probably can't define them."

Be the hard guy

Gartner's Gerrard says the real challenges in e-commerce projects are "business model issues, how to integrate the existing business with your Web strategy. The Internet technology piece is not the real challenge."

You know this. But do the marketing guys know this? More importantly, do they understand its ramifications? Probably not.

"When the marketing people have an idea for a Web site," Meta Group's VanHook says, "everybody knows they won't know about transaction rates, average volume, hit rates, and the like."

That's where IT professionals come in. They need to continually keep marketing aware of the consequences.

"As business is figuring out what it can do, IT needs to help them understand outcomes," Gerrard says. "If they say 'Wouldn't it be great to do such-and-such,' you say, 'Yeah, that's great, but if we do that, we'll have X more orders, and we've got to have order-taking capabilities in that case.'"Your role is to "help marketing make good decisions on technology, not burn resources on low-value-add things," EMaven's Rossetti adds. Network professionals can "help marketing dance around a pothole it would otherwise fall into".

But doesn't that put networking back in the wet-blanket role it's tried so hard to escape - marketing proposes, IT opposes?

"The common business-management complaints about IT are that IT doesn't understand business issues . . . and that IT is not agile enough," Gerrard says.

You stay ahead of both complaints by making sure you're heavily involved with any Web initiatives and proactively offersuggestions.

Give the people what they want

Does marketing ever ask for things that are difficult or impossible to provide? "All the time," says Alvin Boynton, manager of IT at Intranets.com. "Marketing is all about getting what they need, and that's it. They sometimes don't understand that we can't always pull a stat right away."

Wheelhouse's Cameron says, "They want to know how many customers are in Nevada and bought such-and-such a product and came from this list and have two kids."

Such shifting demands can frustrate IT, which is accustomed to heavy upfront project requirements that dwindle over time.

"Ongoing support of marketing systems is much higher," Cameron says. "Marketing folks don't say in advance what they need."

Intranets.com's Boynton has made his life easier by responding to marketing's endless requests for data. "We've bought or built a lot of automated tools," he says. "[Marketing] can pull pretty much anything - like how many users [are at the site], user minutes, whatever."

Manage the outsourcer

You can expect to educate around the issue of outsourcing. The marketing people, under the spell of business magazines and dotcom ads on TV, are likely to think one phone call to an outsourcer solves the problem. If they've ever pulled together an informational Web site, this belief may have been reinforced by the project's relative ease.

"Even if it's outsourced, only the front line is outsourced," Meta Group's VanHook says. "The application servers, the database severs, the Common Gateway Interface servers - they all still need to be handled on the back end. The network people still have to get involved."

Managing outsourcing is a subspecialty that will grow in importance. If your company is considering vendors such as Digex and Exodus Communications, you need to be the hub. You'll evaluate vendors, help decide applications to outsource, negotiate service-level agreements and manage the relationship.

E-GM, which has seen two billion hits since it went live late last year, outsources to IBM Global Services' Web Hosting Services. "Still, managing all that - capacity planning and performance, looking at potential volume, when it's going to hit - how do you prototype that?" Kish asks.

He says benchmarking huge, hard-to-predict volume increases is a key role for eGM network managers. And helping marketing understand the importance of the work is just as critical.

Intranets.com's Boynton agrees. The company uses NaviSite, a US-based application service provider and Internet hosting company. "You don't just bring in a box, plug in a couple of network cables and get everything to work," he says. "I handle benchmarking and traffic patterns. We gather stats and predict what we're going to have to put in place."

Boynton considers himself fortunate because at Intranets.com, "Marketing understands very well what can happen when you're too successful for your hardware."

New role

The bottom line is that there's no need to be a second-class citizen in your company's e-commerce initiatives.

"When IT sits down at a business meeting," EMaven's Rossetti says, "a lot of demons walk in the room."

But you can exorcise those demons. Start with the customer, work back through the business need and then focus on network technology as an enabler.

As the resident expert on networks, you can move the project forward, and make friends in marketing, by educating the businesspeople about the potential of technologies they otherwise wouldn't know about or understand.

"I demo new things to foster brainstorming," randmcnally.com's Silverman says. "Hey, if you had this, what could you do with it?"

This kind of thinking not only helps your company's e-commerce project, it helps you recast your department as a proactive, customer-focused part of the team. It keeps you in the loop. It makes you a bona fide Chef.

"Make sure everybody knows you're there to help marketing be successful," Rossetti says. "It's a sell job, but it can be done."

Juggling content

James Cope

When a user types a URL into the address window of a browser or clicks a link, routers on the Internet need only a second or two to take the user to where that information is stored. But ferreting out the specific documents and graphics - the content - and retrieving it from a busy Web site for display on the user's PC can take more time than some users want to spend.

Thousands of users could be looking for the same information or performing the same transactions at the same time and place. To ward off gridlock and delays, companies and service providers have turned to load balancing.

Load balancing, especially load balancing that uses Web switches, is "the glue that holds e-commerce together," says Ron Westfall, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Sometimes called Layer 7 switching or content switching, load balancing is a way of identifying what users coming to a Web site want and spreading those requests across multiple servers or data centres. Layer 7 refers to the routing of data packets based on information in the highest application layer of the Open Systems Interconnection network model.

The simplest form of load balancing employs a special-purpose computer that sits between a site's Web servers and the router that connects the site to the Internet. Software in the load balancer detects when one server is too busy to accommodate the incoming requests and switches the request to another server at the site. The process is seamless to the user.

As the amount of content housed on Web sites increases and the variety of applications used to create that content becomes more diverse, simple load balancing is no longer adequate. This is especially true for large name-brand sites such as Britannica.com, which hosts a graphics-rich online encyclopedia and supports sophisticated search capabilities.

When Britannica deployed the site two years ago, CIO Doug Shuck says, the company was under no illusion it could control the performance of the Internet after content left its server.

But Shuck says he wanted to minimise delays. "When we went online, besides the recognition of quality, we wanted to preserve the brand," says Shuck. "High availability was part of the design criteria for the site from the beginning.

"We started [building the infrastructure] with three points of distribution," says Shuck. "One was at our corporate facility in Chicago. Others were co-located at hosting centres in Sunnyvale, California. and Herndon, Virginia."

Servers at these centres are now set up in three tiers consisting of Web servers, application servers and database servers, Shuck says. This makes managing servers easier because like applications are located on the same machines. It also increases the processing power available for handling bursts of traffic.

Shuck says he balances traffic across servers at each location using Big-IP, a brand of load balancer from F5 Networks. He says the F5 equipment dynamically balances requests for content over the appropriate servers within each site. It detects server problems and shifts the load to "one or more machine sets [clusters of servers] per location", Shuck says.

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