Managing the front end

Operate your Web site with your customers in mind. Learn the newest methods of monitoring your own online performance.

By John K. Waters

The trick to successful front-end management of e-business systems is to adopt the point of view of the user, says Lance Travis, vice president of e-business infrastructure services for AMR Research, Boston.

“When I’m sitting at my Web browser, and I put your goods into my shopping cart, and I hit enter, I want good feedback right away,” he says. “If I don’t get it, I’m gone. Whether the user is a consumer or a trading partner, you’re going to have to measure and monitor what’s happening out there from this kind of user perspective.”

In other words, you need to collect information about how your site is performing. You can accomplish this in several ways:

Simulate transactions from your server
Allowing your server to “pretend” that it is a client trying to complete a transaction yields some good performance statistics, but it fails to provide that true user perspective, Travis says. “It’ll tell you how well your server is performing,” he says, “but it lacks the perspective of the Internet, because it’s obviously local.”

Hire an outside performance monitoring service
These services develop a set of performance statistics by executing transactions at your site at regular intervals, usually every few minutes. The statistics reveal things such as how long it took to get feedback from the site between the hours of 2:00 P.M. and 3:00 P.M.

A home banking site Travis recently interviewed hired a monitoring service that found a spike of activity at its site between midnight and 1:00 A.M.—the time during which they had been doing their system maintenance.

“It turns out that home banking and insomnia seem to go hand in hand,” Travis says. “Because they had this information, they were able to reschedule their maintenance so that it wouldn’t slow down the system during a peak.”

Employ user-initiated monitoring software
A third way to monitor the performance of your system is with software that watches the action from the user’s computer.

“The customer is actually running a piece of software that tells the store how long it took you to execute that particular transaction,” Travis explains. “Whenever I go to and click your shopping cart application, I also get a little piece of software that monitors the performance I’m experiencing when I access your site. It’s hard to say at this point how the privacy folks feel about this particular bit of software, but I know that the vendors are very sensitive to the issue. The ones I have talked to are being very careful that all they do is report back the performance statistics.”

All three approaches have their advantages and provide IT managers with useful information about the performance of their e-business sites. But the results are rather coarse-grained; you can learn that a particular transaction took a total of 10 seconds, with 4 seconds to traverse the Internet, and 6 seconds in the back-end processor. But there is no way currently for those products to provide details about where those 6 seconds were spent.

“This is where having well-managed back-end systems really matters,” he explains. “You need to have the systems in place that can say, ‘OK, my Internet monitoring told me that it took 6 seconds in the back-end. Now my back-end tool is telling me that a transaction came in and it took 5.5 seconds in the app server.’”

Today, correlating the front-end and back-end information requires human intervention. But Travis expects to see tools that automate this process within a year or so.
This article is the third installment in a series about e-business application management. Check out the previous articles:Part I: Living in a 24x7 worldPart II: Coping with e-commerce demandsThis content originally appeared in Wiesner Publishing's Software Magazine and appears on TechRepublic under a special arrangement with the publisher.
Vendors and products
All the products in the e-business space are very new, says Travis, which makes evaluation challenging. “Everyone is on shaky new legs,” he says. “You want to know who’s been walking the longest—and the longest may be 9 months instead of 2 months.”

Look first, Travis advises, at the vendor’s installed user base. “Everyone is learning as they’re doing,” he says. “The products that are out there right now will at least be a little farther up the learning curve.”

Complicating the search for the right tools and vendors is a market evolution that is bringing EAI vendors into the e-business space. “All EAI vendors are now being pulled into e-business,” says Aubrey Chernick, CEO of Candle Corp in El Segundo, CA. “Our customers bring us in for EAI and for e-business because they need advanced process management capabilities.”

Travis says that some IT organizations still doubt the value of using outside vendors for their e-business applications. What they’re not considering, Travis says, is if the site is successful and the bar gets raised considerably.

The build vs. buy decision here should probably be tempered by the nature of the environment. Things change fast on the Internet; you want products and services that can adapt just as quickly.

“People are still figuring out how to do this,” he says. “So don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. In my examination of the large, successful sites, the consistent message I got was that they learned by doing it; that they made mistakes, but very quickly learned from them. I get the feeling that there were lots of late nights and near disasters, but that they’ve moved beyond them.”

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. He is also the author of Silicon Valley: Inventing the Future (with Jean Deitz Sexton), and the soon to be published The Everything Computer Book.

What have you learned about doing business online? A virtual bank was surprised to learn its customers were online after midnight. How have you adapted your Web site to customer needs? Post a comment below or send us a note.

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