Web-to-Host Connections: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

The broadcast industry actually has calculations that estimate the losses incurred for every second of "dead air." That’s when an announcer takes too long of a break, or if there’s a technical glitch, and you get several long seconds of silence. That’s when the station runs the risk of losing you, and the advertising dollars you represent. Likewise, dead air is an affliction hitting many Web deployments – in the form of slow downloads or "Server Busy" messages. Even when a Web-to-host user is unlikely to have reason to click to a competitor’s Web site, slowdowns in performance can be costly.

An industry veteran pointed out to me that system cholesterol has been a problem for decades, since mainframes first ruled the earth. Typically, end user departments would pile on new demands for features or programs that brought systems to their knees.

The difference is, back then, only techies or internal users noticed if the system slowed down or crashed. Nowadays, it’s business partners, vendors and customers that feel the pain. An industry rule of thumb is that a lag in response time of eight seconds or longer is considered the kiss of death.

The consequences of slow performance may be costly. Sluggish Web sites and download times cripple e-commerce sites at a rate of about $362 million per month, or more than $4 billion a year, according to Zona Research.

Unfortunately, what happens on the front end is almost out of your hands altogether. With Web-to-host deployments, you no longer control what kind of client or terminal you’re serving to. You may be attempting to reach older PCs or underpowered laptops with 28.8/56 kbps connections. Back-end connection cholesterol, on the other hand, is a more controllable health hazard that can be avoided.

"Anyone can run an e-commerce site by setting up a Dell 750 MHz Pentium III or a Sun Enterprise server," says Alf Weaver, Director of the Internet Technology Innovation Center at the University of Virginia. "But, that’s only the beginning of what it takes to run a serious e-commerce site."

E-commerce sites typically fail for a number of reasons, mainly because they tend to be too unreliable, or too complex. "When servers crash, IT has to spend hours to decide if the problem is in its Cisco routers, HP servers, Microsoft operating system, Java middleware or ERP application," says Carl D. Howe, an analyst with Forrester Research.

An effective Web operation can keep responsiveness within the eight-second response timeframe through stringent maintenance. In fact, many top e-commerce sites’ maintenance costs are equal to their development costs. The key is to be able to recruit and maintain a stable of well-trained and knowledgeable IT staff and services. "A serious, e-commerce hosted site needs a lot of infrastructure," says Weaver.

Ensuring Web Site Performance

Keep the user interface as thin as possible. In Web-to-host deployments, developers often have to grapple with the size of the Java or ActiveX applet being downloaded. The same applies to Web pages in general. To keep downloads at a decent speed, Zona recommends keeping the sizes of Web pages at less than 40 KB to 50 KBs.

Stick to standards. Assume the systems you are currently using may not be around in a few years, says Howe. Successful e-commerce sites typically consist of dozens of big UNIX and NT systems, powered by multiple switches, he says.

Staff well. Most small- to medium-sized organizations simply don’t have what it takes to run a serious e-commerce operation, says Weaver. "If a small- to medium-sized company isn’t already inherently a computer-oriented company, an IT infrastructure is very expensive to acquire," he warns. "It makes much more sense to outsource."

Train heavily. Companies need to build a dedicated staff to the e-commerce operation. "High-availability systems can’t wait for problems to bounce from the server management group to the network help desk to the applications development team," says Howe.

Diversify. "Multiple systems keep the performance impact of any box failure small," says Howe. "Despite CIOs eager to standardize to reduce maintenance costs, e-commerce leaders use everything from Windows NT/2000 systems to UNIX-based multiprocessors in their e-commerce computer farms. This ensures that threats, such as viruses that infect Windows NT systems or hackers that target servers, can’t bring down every system in the data center. Rabid standardization on single machine types has left whole Web sites vulnerable to OS-specific Internet viruses."

Redundancy. This is the ultimate key to 24x7 performance. Successful e-commerce sites have redundancy built into everything, in terms of duplicate servers, connections, storage and power supplies. In a successful e-commerce site, "everything is duplicated, everything’s backed up multiple times, multiple ways," says Weaver.

About the Author: Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in technology research and white papers. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.

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