Sees Flowers Blooming on Web

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - Inc. has become the de facto Web site for gardening enthusiasts around the world. Its success has been mostly due to's ability to build an intricate supply-chain infrastructure that allows it to deliver perishable goods in a timely manner.

But's road to success has not been without its technical and business challenges.

The company struggles with database performance issues and hiring people who can understand its business. In an interview with InfoWorld Editor in Chief Michael Vizard, CTO Andy Martin outlines issues that the company faces.

InfoWorld: What kinds of technical challenges are you seeing in your role as CTO of

Martin: In the last four years, the biggest thing I've spent my time on is performance. Everything comes from performance. If you have performance wrong, you're never going to be able to get your architecture optimized. If you get the performance right, the sky's the limit.

I've spent more time on caching in the last four years than anything else; that's the only way you get performance. And the reason is that the databases are so damn slow. I don't understand why everyone loves Oracle. But that's what everyone uses: Solaris and Oracle. Or they go the Microsoft route. The level of work I have to put in just to get around the performance is unbelievable.

InfoWorld: So what are you doing to get around this performance problem?

Martin: I have 300,000 cache files on every single one of my Web servers, all storing this data locally. I have to tell people, "Don't hit the database. Put everything in it, but don't hit it." It's really unbelievable that we had to do that and it's all because the database is based around an architecture that's 20 years old.

InfoWorld: Can you give me an example of how the lack of database performance affects your Web site?

Martin: I tried to build a system such that even if I get an inexperienced developer on staff, they can still do good stuff. The performance thing you've got to watch constantly, and you can't just put the system in and hope that everyone's going to do it the right way.

One of the things on our Web site that the customer service reps use is the ability to look up users. It's certainly not done using indexes, and that's by default. When we started, the database was fairly small, and it seemed to make a lot of sense. You didn't have to be that accurate. Now, it can take 20 seconds if they don't press the little button that says Exact Matches Only.

I guess that's the thing that a lot of people don't get. They keep thinking that the RAM, disk, and everything else, is all free. They think that it's not really a big deal. Well, it isn't if you have one user on your Web site. But I don't think most Web sites are going to have just one user.

InfoWorld: It seems like a lot of the Web companies are pushing the envelope on the technology. We're all talking about the wonders of moving to 64-bit systems sometime in the next two years, when we should really be talking about 128-bit systems. What do you think about that?

Martin: I just try to work with what we've got. From day one, we've always tried to be a company that works through what the Web is today.

I feel that 64-bit would probably work fine if everything else worked with it.

It's just now that we are there with C++ -- we're certainly not there with Java. Most of our systems are in C, by the way, and since we're in and out, we don't need anything that C++ gives us. Now that we're moving toward the Java server model, 64-bit seems to make more sense. I'm hoping we can get performance out of it. I think if you choose the right performance in the right places, you're OK.

InfoWorld: How do you deal with integrating the skills of the technical people and the business people?

Martin: Well, you can't rely on people to know what the right thing is to do.

About a year ago, we started our NextGen initiative, and it has proven to be much more painful, because the model we're now taking is [that] we're going to hire an MBA who can act as the business architect.

One of the problems we have had is the company got big and I was no longer talking to the end-user or the business user; the developers pretty much talked to them. And that was very bad because developers don't know how to run an e-commerce company. They may know how to build software around an e-commerce company.

We really have to figure out what is the key thing about that keeps people coming to work for us and staying with us for two years' time. Because in two years we will have real serious competitors. We don't have serious competitors at this stage, and it's because of our supply chain. It's a virtual warehouse, and it's hard to build.

InfoWorld: Is your supply chain working in virtual real time?

Martin: What we've now got in there is inventory [that] comes directly from the suppliers. They make the order over the Internet, they see the order come in, they can go and pack it. And they press the button and out comes the FedEx label. The second that FedEx label has been generated, the tracking number is already in our system. We put that total integration with FedEx in nearly a year and a half ago, and that is one of the sweetest things we did.

We want to do it actually with all the suppliers. You've been hearing about this for a while, but I don't know many other companies that are actually physically doing it to that level. So we really have made it easier for the suppliers; we've got one company who's given up their catalog business and is just going to be solely through us now.

We've really perfected our supply chain, and [that] has really set up a barrier to entry for competitors. I don't wake up in the morning thinking that Amazon's going to put another tab on their site that is called Gardening. The only way it's going to happen is if they buy us. They can't do it because it takes a long period of time to get the supply chain right.

InfoWorld: Does the business side understand the performance and all technical issue things you're talking about?

Martin: They get it when I go in and I say, "Look, we've got a real problem. I need another $200,000 for a new server." When you run your whole business on a database, they have no choice.

InfoWorld: Is there any new technology you're hot about right now?

Martin: One of the areas I really want to see is much better monitoring. You have monitoring systems that monitor Web sites and page downloads and the kind of load on the system, but we need to go a lot further than that.

If you look at the way our system is built, there are probably 600 scripts that run every single day. Who knows what they're doing and why? I just know they run. And what happens is that no one person can watch it all the time. So let's say we've sent the same e-mail to the same person 100 times today. There's a problem there. This process that used to take three minutes is now taking seven minutes and we don't know if it is suddenly going to take 22 minutes or that it's not going to be finished within a specific period of time.

InfoWorld: What kinds of features will you need in your monitoring software to really make it effective for's business?

Martin: To build up a history of all these monitoring events and start to do some analysis going forward, you want the diagnostics from a kind of a customer perspective, from a system perspective, just the whole gambit. I mean it's got to be totally programmable, totally controllable, but take the heartache out of trying to do that yourself. That is an area that I think we're just scratching the surface of.

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