By John K. Waters
We’ve all heard the horror stories, seen the headlines: “System Crash Suspends eBay Auctions,” “E*Trade Goes Offline Again,” “Schwab Site Suffers Outage.” It’s enough to keep an enterprise from dipping even a virtual toe into the seeming maelstrom of e-business—but only for a while.
E-business has become an inescapable fact of life, nearly as essential to commerce as the telephone. For all intents and purposes, you can’t compete nowadays without some kind of e-business strategy.
In this article, we’ll outline the key characteristics for every e-commerce enterprise. The remaining two articles in this series will examine the following:
- How the back-end should support the front-end
- How to evaluate performance and what products perform this task
“Things are accelerating now that Y2K is behind us,” says Lance Travis, vice president of e-business infrastructure services for AMR Research , Boston. “People seem to have the money to implement their e-business strategies. And you’d better have one, or you’re in big trouble.”
If industry watchers like Travis are to be believed, the market for Internet-based business-to-business (B2B) services in particular is gaining a truly startling momentum.
- Forrester Research , Cambridge, MA, has pegged business-to-consumer (B2C) sales for last year at around $18 billion; its B2B sales figures came closer to $100 billion for the same period.
- Researchers at the GartnerGroup, Stamford, CT, expect the worldwide B2B e-commerce market to grow to $7.29 trillion by 2004—that’s 50 times larger than it was in 1999.
- An estimated 42% of Web sites that have catered to businesses for at least three years are now profitable, and 27% of new sites that went live in the past year are reporting profits. According to Gartner, the B2B market is being driven by investment financing, IT spending, start-up money, and new brick-and-mortar projects.
“I think it’s pretty clear that most everybody bigger than a lemonade stand is going to wind up with some kind of network business-to-business infrastructure within the next few years,” says Fred Meyer, VP of Product Marketing at Tibco Software Inc., Palo Alto, CA. “And that’s going to have to replicate and replace systems and processes that have been put in place over many years.”
A whole new ballgame
All of which seems to indicate that a lot of people who, until recently, did little more than publish a Web page, are charging onto the Internet with serious business in mind. For IT managers, this surge into cyberspace presents numerous new challenges. A successful e-business strategy—whether it’s B2B or B2C—relies utterly on systems that are fast, agile, scalable, reliable, and, most of all, well-managed. Managers of the e-business component of an enterprise must cope with rapid change, corporate experimentation, new and ever-shifting Web technologies, and the expectations of visitors from the outside.
“Managing applications [on the Web] is a whole new ballgame,” says Travis, who has been studying e-business application management as part of a soon-to-be-published report.
E-business applications present a number of unique management challenges, including:
For many managers, this is the toughest aspect of e-business to get used to. E-business applications are public-facing. Any mistakes are immediately displayed, possibly to a huge audience. Unauthorized content, incorrect content, and unauthorized links can have legal implications.
E-business demands 24x7 availability. “You’re on the Web now,” Travis says, “and you have to deal with the 24x7 availability of those applications. The guy in Japan who just logged on to your site doesn’t care that it’s the middle of the night here.”
User demand is always difficult to estimate or control on the Web. E-business applications may be called upon to handle sudden surges of activity, making scalability especially crucial. “It really matters if you’re successful,” Travis says. “If millions of people suddenly start hitting your Web site, you’ve got to make sure that your system can handle it.”
“You need to protect your Web site from hackers,” Travis says, “but also—especially in the B2B space, in which you’re sharing potentially sensitive business information across a public network—you need to worry about how to safely share information. You have to make sure that people are seeing only what you want them to see.”
E-business, by its very nature, increases application complexity. You might be deploying a hyperlinked application with tens of thousands of files, linked to unknown external sites, and to a changing array of Web servers. And all of it must connect with your internal systems, which can involve an array of packaged applications and legacy technologies.
“There’s this rule of thumb that’s been floating around the last few months that says people will wait eight seconds for a page to download. If it takes longer, they’re going to go elsewhere,” says Travis. “The bottom line is, if I’m buying books, and it takes too long for Amazon.com to get me the Web page, I can go to BarnesandNoble.com. You’ve got to worry about performance.”
Coping with these kinds of e-business-application issues is a twofold management challenge, says Travis, encompassing the unique requirements of back-end systems and the front-end user interface.
John K. Waters has been covering the technology beat from Silicon Valley for more than a decade. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, from Java Report to the San Francisco Examiner. He is also the author of Silicon Valley: Inventing the Future (with Jean Deitz Sexton). And soon to be published: The Everything Computer Book.Here’s your chance to speak out. What’s the toughest aspect of keeping your Web site running efficiently? If you could ask software developers to design a product that would solve your worst e-commerce headaches, what problems would you want them to work on? Post a comment below or drop us a line to suggest an article idea.