Coping with e-commerce demands

You've just made your entire system more vulnerable to performance problems. Welcome to the headaches e-commerce creates for the IT manager. Here are some ways you can deal with it.

By John K. Waters

Before turning your attention to the Web, give careful consideration to the state of your enterprise’s back-end systems, advises Lance Travis, vice president of e-business infrastructure services for AMR Research , Boston.

To varying degrees, those systems will be linked to your e-business applications. How they perform will have a direct effect on the speed, agility, reliability, and scalability of those apps.

“You need to ensure that the management of those back-end systems is top notch,” he says. “For example, let’s say that right now you’ve got 2,000 internal users doing transactions against your order-entry ERP system, and that with those 2,000 users you get a performance issue once every 45 minutes—something that someone has to fix. Now let’s say that you integrate your ERP system with your Web applications. All of a sudden, you have two million people hitting that thing. You’re now facing a performance problem once every two minutes. The Web connection changes everything.”

E-business changes the environment in which your back-end systems operate. Procedures you took for granted may need to change. That database you routinely took offline for backup, recovery, or general maintenance chores, for example, now lives in a 24x7 world. “You’re going to have to find a way to do all your maintenance on a live system,” Travis says. One solution for database maintenance: mirrored storage.
Last week, the first article explored the characteristics that every e-commerce site must have. In this article, we’ll outline what steps you can take to ensure that the back-end system can handle your e-business. Next week, the final article in this series will examine how to evaluate performance and what products perform this task. This content originally appeared in Wiesner Publishing's Software Magazine and appears on TechRepublic under a special arrangement with the publisher.
How to take precautions
E-business also makes your entire system more vulnerable to performance problems. In a world where the slightest cliché ripples far and wide, adequate redundancy becomes crucial.

“When you look at the successful Web sites for business,” Travis explains, “you see a lot of redundancy built in—in the architecture, especially. You see multiple application servers with load balancing and failover capabilities across those application servers. You have to have it. You can’t afford not to.”

Systems that rely on a single large server to achieve scalability are courting disaster, Travis warns. “Sure, you get a scalable system, but if that one big server goes down,” you’re in trouble, he says. “If you have an architecture that consists of lots of small servers, when one goes down the others can take over. The other advantage to this strategy is, as demand increases, you can just keep plugging in the little boxes.”

The ability to access data stored in packaged applications and back-end legacy systems is crucial to the success of a Web application management strategy.

“There’s sort of a blurring here between EAI [Enterprise Application Integration] and application servers,” says Travis. “One deals with how you’re going to connect your PeopleSoft financials and your SAP warehouse with your legacy software; the other deals with a broker that allows you to come in from the Web and then farm out transactions to specific applications. Both become important technologies for integrating all of this stuff into the Web.”

According to Ed Acly, director of middleware research at International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, MA, there’s a surge in the EAI market that is directly connected to the surge in e-business initiatives.

“Packaged applications were supposed to solve a bunch of problems,” Acly says. “And they did. But in integration terms, their proliferation over the last couple of years has actually made things worse. The question facing many IT managers is: How do I get that new ERP package, on which I just spent a ton of money, to interoperate with all of our in-house-developed and legacy software—on which I also spent a ton—and eventually the Web?”

The need for speed
The aspect of e-business that gets the most attention is the need for speed. Everybody wants to secure that first-move advantage. According to Aubrey Chernick, CEO of El Segundo, CA-based Candle Corp. , for many embarking on an e-business initiative, that need for speed outweighs application management considerations, at least in the beginning.

“Our customers definitely feel a compelling need to move fast in this space,” Chernick says. “How fast can they get their e-business up and running? That’s the first question they ask. They have a higher need to move faster than the competition than they do to manage, although both are important.

“But the whole issue of e-business speed has a lifecycle to it. At the front end of the lifecycle, what matters is time to market—securing that first-mover advantage. Then the speed concerns shift to Web response time speed—they need good response time, good order management time.”

Bruce Hall, VP of marketing at InCert Software Corp ., Cambridge, MA, expects the frantic rush to e-business to slow down in the not-too-distant future.

“People are scared to death that they’re going to be late, that they’re going to be ‘amazoned,’” Hall says. “But that kind of thinking leads to real problems. You have to have your act together on the Web, and you want to see the bigger picture. I’m seeing a dramatic shift in thinking, toward architectures around Web sites, to issues of application stability, scalability, and availability, as well as the hardware and the network infrastructure required to handle the volume if you’re successful. I think that those kinds of considerations are going to slow things down—a bit, anyway. And I think that’s a good thing.”
E-commerce has placed IT pros in a pressure cooker when it comes to daily workload. What has this intense environment taught you about operating the system’s back end? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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