Finding the Recipe for Internet Success

A specialty baked goods company was losing online sales because of a Web site that couldn't handle peak holiday traffic. Solution: It upgraded its existing iSeries (AS/400) computers and created a new Web site running Linux.

For several years, the business pages have chronicled the demise of one Internet business after another, from telecoms whose demand never materialized to old economy companies that scaled back their once-colossal Internet visions.

For more fortunate firms, however, the biggest problem has been keeping up with the rapid expansion in online sales.

"During the holidays, we get an awful lot of load on our Web site and the last couple [of] years we have really struggled with the capacity to handle that much traffic," says John Butorac, vice president of the Wolferman's division of Williams Foods Inc. in Shawnee Mission, Kan. "Last holiday season, our site was slowing down to the point where customers were waiting from twenty seconds to over a minute and we knew we were losing customers."

Despite its high-tech sales approach, Wolferman's is not a new economy company. The company's first corner grocery store opened in Kansas City, Miss., in 1888. Over the next century it grew into a specialty foods producer selling to grocery stores from coast to coast. In addition, the company started offering its English muffins, cookies, cakes and other gourmet foods through a catalog.

When the Internet boomed, the company added the technology to its array of sales methods. The company put its catalog online in 1993, but the site lacked online ordering capability, wasn't promoted, and received very little traffic. After a year, Wolferman's shut down the site; several years later it created an expanded online presence that has proved a huge success.

"In five years online sales have grown to the point where they now account for 25 to 30 percent of our total business," says Butorac.

Success has its pitfalls, however. The company's Web site wasn't designed to handle that level of traffic, and it cost the company sales as customers couldn't get through during the peak November-December period that accounts for 80 percent of the company's annual sales.

New Equipment for Big Hits
"Daily hits went from [between] 300,000 [and] 500,000 during the off season up to 1.5 million during the holidays," say Butorac. "Our custom-built Web site wasn't made for this type of load so we decided to do a redesign before the next busy season."

Wolferman's liked the catalog sites built by eOne Global, so it hired the company to design its new site. It also needed to improve its infrastructure to accommodate the rising traffic load. IBM recommended upgrading the company's existing iSeries (AS/400) 820 server with a more powerful machine in the same line, but that would have been an expensive proposition.

"We wanted more flexibility and the ability to handle the high traffic we have during the holidays, but the value piece is also a huge attribute for our company," Butorac explains. "It would have been hard to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade the iSeries server."

eOne proposed an alternative approach: clustering several low-cost IBM xSeries Linux servers. This would give Wolferman's the capacity it needed as well as provide an easy route to future expansion—just plug additional boxes into the cluster.

"Doing this gives us a lot of flexibility," says Butorac. "We can balance the load of people coming in during key times of the year, and the investment into Linux was substantially nothing."

The new front-end Web site hardware, two dual-processor IBM xSeries 330 servers running SuSE Linux 7.0, are hosted at a plaNet Consulting co-location facility in Omaha, Neb. offering 24-by-7 service. The back-end inventory and shipping information resides on the IBM iSeries 620 server located at Wolferman's headquarters in Kansas.

The two locations connect through a virtual private network (VPN) running inside a T-1 line, with a DSL line as a backup. The two lines connect through a Radware Linkproof switch that detects if the T-1 goes down and, if so, switches traffic to the DSL line.

The installation and programming of the new site began in June 2002. eOne wrote JavaScript connections between the front- and back-end software and customized the site per Wolferman's requirements. The existing memberships were switched from the old application to the new one. The new equipment was installed and configured. Load testing started in August and the site went live in September, ready to handle twice the 1.5 to two million daily hits expected to arrive in November.

"It's extremely important to get all the parties working together on the project," says Butorac. "We had a lot of interaction with IBM, eOne, and plaNet, and it is that interface and teamwork which makes it successful."

Wolferman's can't rest just yet, of course. The company projects having enough capacity for this holiday season, but will need to continue to meet expanding traffic loads by adding further servers to the front-end cluster.

Details: Wolferman's Web Site

Team Leader: John Butorac, vice president of the Wolferman's Division

Organization: Wolferman's Inc., part of Williams Foods Inc.

Business/Mission: Wolferman's is a specialty baked goods company selling through stores nationwide as well as direct to consumers via phone, catalog and Web site.

Location: Shawnee Mission, Kan.

Web Site: www.wolfermans.com

Goal: To economically provide rapid service to customers on its e-commerce site during peak holiday season.

Scope: The Web site accommodated approximately 1.5 million page hits during the 2001 holiday season and accounts for approximately 25 to 30 percent of the company's total revenues. The upgrade is designed to handle at least twice that volume and scale even higher as needed. Project is under $100,000 and taking about three months.

Equipment/Platform:

  • IBM AS/400 Model 620 server for back-end
  • IBM AS/400 Model 820 for hosting Web site
  • IBM DB2 database
  • IBM WebSphere e-business platform

Solution: Create a new Web site running on a hosted Linux cluster which uses Java script to interface with the back-end database at the company's headquarters.

Milestones: Started implementation June 2002. Site went live in September.

Products:

  • Two IBM xSeries Model 330 servers with dual 1.4GHz processors
    IBM Corp.
    Armonk, N.Y.
    (888) 746-7426
    www.ibm.com
  • SuSE Linux 7.0
    SuSE Inc.
    Oakland, Calif.
    (888) 875-4689
    www.suse.com
  • Linkproof layer 4-7 switch
    Radware Inc.
    Mahwah, N.J.
    (888) 234-5763
    www.radware.com

VARs/Integrators:

  • Web site design and programming:
    eONE Global LP
    www.e1global.com
    Headquarters: Napa, Calif.
    Work done by Omaha, Neb. office
  • Web site hosting:
    plaNet Consulting Inc.
    www.planetci.com
    Omaha, Neb.

Cost Savings: Project cost less than $100,000 to implement the cluster compared with several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the iSeries 820.

Other Products Considered: Only other option considered was upgrading the existing front-end server. "We wanted to stay in the IBM family because IBM equipment just runs and runs and runs."

About the Author

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology reporting.

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