E-business redefines infrastructure needs

The intense demands of electronic commerce are compelling IT professionals to rethink their approach to IT infrastructure, giving priority to developing systems available around the clock.

The global explosion of Internet commerce has stretched business hours and raised the stakes for online customer service. Yet Web-centred networks are often unreliable and complex, experts say.

"Availability is as important as breathing in and out [is] to human beings," says Kal Raman, chief information officer and senior vice president of Drugstore.com in the US. But that's not the case for brick-and-mortar companies, adds Raman, who formerly worked at Blockbuster and Wal-Mart Stores.

"In a traditional company, if my systems go down, I always have - no matter how painful it is - a way to survive where I can still sell products and take in cash," Raman says. "But, in the case of e-commerce, when systems go down, we don't have a business."

Not only must e-commerce companies safeguard against failure, but they no longer have the luxury of planning system-wide downtime after regular business hours to make internal changes and upgrades, said Calvin Braunstein, CEO and principal analyst at the Robert Frances Group.

"Once you get out into e-commerce, with sites that are up 24x7, the opportunity to do changes, when no one can see, goes away," Braunstein said.

There's no single strategy to obtain the Holy Grail of 100 per cent availability, Braunstein says.

But there are good questions to ask to find the right path to avoiding downtime.

For one thing, he says, companies have to determine the level of downtime that's acceptable and design a strategy for high availability to match.

However, establishing the right processes and organisation is just as important as deploying the right technology, Braunstein says.

Downtime is costly. Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, estimates that the cost of downtime for major Internet companies in 1999 is $US8000 an hour.

That's a conservative figure, say IT professionals, when they consider the potential loss of customers in the increasingly competitive environment.

"Our customer is a click away" from the competition, says Darrell Starnes, director of systems infrastructure at Ashford.com, an e-tailer of personal accessories in Texas. The margin for forgiveness is thin, Starnes adds.

"[Web] customers are used to hitting the Refresh button [on their browsers], so the Internet gives you a window of 30 to 45 seconds," Starnes says. "If they [have to] hit the Refresh button a couple of times, they are going away, and they are not coming back."

The fickle nature of Web consumerism makes ensuring uptime trying, experts say, because it can be difficult to predict when traffic will spike.

"The fact is that the world at large has on-demand access to your systems, and you no longer can fully control the impact they will have on you," says Ian Cote, systems engineer at Corbis, an online provider of photographs and fine art. "You are a victim to your own great marketing."

As a result, savvy IT professionals are giving availability - along with related matters such as usability, processing speed, and efficiency - an elevated sense of importance when turning to e-commerce initiatives.

For example, Drugstore.com has designed its software so that it can cache a customer's credit card information in case the online drugstore's link with the credit card authorisation system fails. Then Drugstore.com can resubmit the data immediately when the link has been re-established, Raman says. The process would happen so quickly that the customer would never know the authorisation failed, become frustrated, and leave the Web site, he adds. In contrast, cashiers at a typical brick-and-mortar merchant would simply have told the customer that they could not accept the credit card or would have accepted it without the authorisation.

The customer expectation for continuously available systems means business and technical decisions have to be made hand in glove, experts say. So when Ashford.com officials decided to offer an online sweepstakes for a 15-carat diamond ring, they knew they had to create a technology solution to support a potential swell in traffic. Ashford's IT professionals created a special companion site just for the promotion, Starnes says. That way traffic to the sweepstake site would not adversely affect the regular site.

Remaining hurdles to developing a high-availability infrastructure are "realising your dependencies and single points of failure, and developing processes to ensure that you never out yourself," says Corbis' Cote. "I know this sounds rudimentary, but that's often easier - and a lot cheaper - said than done."

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