Analysts Square Off on E-Commerce Systems Management

Integrating and managing an enterprise-wide IT system seems like such a daunting task, many IT managers choose to repair disasters as they occur, rather than having to face the challenge of implementing a solution to prevent them. The growth of distributed and multi-platform computing environments has only made this effort more difficult.

Add e-commerce to that mix, and the difficulties only increase. In a market where an hour of downtime can mean millions in losses, reliable information about everything taking place in every corner of your enterprise becomes even more crucial. And it can get even more complicated. Often it requires retooling existing applications to manage the new functions associated with e-commerce. In many cases, it means building a systems management strategy from the ground up, where none might have existed previously.

"When you talk about total cost of ownership, and you look at the prices of these products, just begin to figure out how much it costs to have your business go down for an hour, or a day."
Systems management, in any environment, is about setting priorities. A massive undertaking, managing enterprise IT requires a huge investment of time and money, but, analysts say, businesses cannot afford to regard it as a problem to be solved piecemeal.

“What I’ve seen with some of our customers is that they attacked this problem before they really developed a plan,” says Jim Walts, software consultant for the software engineering division of Andrews Consulting Group (formerly D.H. Andrews Group, Boston), “Then what happened is the cart got way ahead of the horse, and they started having more downtime and more disasters.”

Recognizing that need and actually constructing a workable plan are two very different tasks, however, and no element of the process can be taken for granted. The most fundamental challenge for companies implementing systems management for e-commerce, say those who’ve been there, isn’t finding the right solution, or deciding how to integrate various elements of your system (although those steps become critical later). Before any of that can occur, the number one priority has to be figuring out what exactly needs to be managed. With the addition of e-commerce tools, the concept of “manageable infrastructure” becomes more and more difficult to define.

“With e-commerce there are similarities in the systems management area, but there are also additional considerations that extend some of those needs,” says Maria DeGiglio, senior industry analyst for the industry analysis and market research practice at Andrews Group. “You’re looking at your systems management concerns writ large, you’re going from a microcosm environment to a macrocosm when you’re moving to e-commerce.”

While there is generally agreement that enterprise-wide systems management is a necessity, experts differ on whether it is achievable, both in terms of securing management support and finding the right technology for the job. On some aspects, the number of opinions can match the number of experts able to speak on the subject, as MIDRANGE Systems recently discovered through a conversation with Walts, DiGiglio and three of their Andrews Group colleagues, as well as a senior GartnerGroup analyst, about the possibilities and limitations of systems management for e-commerce.

Priority 1: Admit you have a problem

“The funny thing about systems management is, when you go into these corporations, people don’t buy it. They don’t want to pay for it,” Walts says.

A major problem with systems management in general, analysts argue, is that companies simply do not give it due attention and resources. The reasons for this vary. Walts says he believes much of the reason has to do with companies’ unwillingness to invest significant time, personnel and cash in technology that – if your system is functioning well – will not bring an immediate, visible return on investment.

“Typically these are businesses that are trying to grow their business, and they want things that are going to have an immediate return on investment,” Walts says. “They look for revenue builders like more function in the application or a new machine for greater capacity, rather than spending the money for something that helps their existing tools be more efficient.”

AS/400 users might have an advantage in this, but that doesn’t mean they get off the hook entirely. Greg Caucutt, consulting manager for Andrews Group’s Rochester, Minn., division, believes IBM’s drive in recent years to make AS/400 a viable e-business platform has been successful, to the point where the server is preferable in some instances to other more popular Internet servers.

Part of the advantage, Caucutt says, stems from the fact that AS/400 was from the beginning specifically designed for enterprise level processes. Even with the added factor of Web server, the AS/400’s integrated architecture “is a major advantage from a systems management perspective,” according to Caucutt. However, while she agrees there are some clear benefits, DiGiglio argues that the prevailing image of the AS/400 as an integrated platform may just be its biggest systems management planning flaw.

Now the bad news: even after you've recognized the problem, you've determined your fault tolerance and you've hired consultants to determine the best strategy -- after all that, you still might not be able to find the right tool, simply because it may not exist.
“Interestingly, I think the AS/400 has done such a great job, and OS/400 is so well constructed and so well integrated, that people think it can do everything,” DeGiglio says.

Ray Paquet, a GartnerGroup (Stamford, Conn.) analyst and vice president, believes neglecting management concerns – regardless of what the dominant platform is in a company’s environment – has less to do with lack of concern and more with lack of forethought.

“I don’t think it’s that they don’t ‘buy it,’ it’s more that they don’t think about it,” Paquet says. “When you go buy a car, do you think about how easy it is to repair or maintain? You might look for one that doesn’t break, but you don’t think about what happens if it does.”

Walts says this can often lead to what he referred to as a “fire drill” setting in some companies. Without planning ahead, business managers can find themselves in the position of having to repair disasters on-the-spot. Once the immediate problem is remedied, the need for overall systems management drops into the background again.

“It gets to the point where you go to these operations guys and they have yellow stickies all over, telling them where all the hardware is, rather than a piece of software that will tell them all that,” Walts says. “They’ll do the fire drill ... and they won’t think about the hard stuff like planning ahead until a disaster or it burns their wallet.”

While putting off systems management issues might amount to a cost saving early on, it can be much more expensive in the long term. A recent survey by e-commerce and IT researchers the Standish Group (West Yarmouth, Mass.) found that 90 percent of e-businesses faced significant site performance problems in 1999.

It is the possibility of such disasters which Andrews Group’s DiGiglio says should provide the impetus for businesses to develop or purchase more sophisticated monitoring tools for their entire IT infrastructure. While these tools can be expensive and implementation time-consuming, that cost pales in comparison to the potential cost to a large business of waiting to fix a problem after a crisis occurs.

“When you talk about total cost of ownership, and you look at the prices of these products, just begin to figure out how much it costs to have your business go down for an hour, or a day,” DiGiglio says.

Priority 2: Figure Out How E-Commerce Compounds the Problem

A number of factors associated with e-commerce serve to complicate the systems management issues that exist in all enterprises. However, these are also the factors that make it even more critical in e-business.

For one, e-commerce makes the need for effective systems management more immediate, because when business is being conducted over the Web, the potential cost associated with system elements going down increases dramatically. A recent study by Zona Research (Redwood City, Calif.) estimated businesses lose $4.4 billion annually due to poor site performance, according to survey results cited by the MSP Association.

Added to that problem, says Walts, is the fact that new e-commerce specific tools, such as routers and Web application servers are now added as elements of the system to be managed.

Even for a small e-business, staying competitive in a virtual marketplace might mean a whole new business strategy.

“For small business it is becoming the rule rather than the exception that they have to compete with Internet business,” DiGiglio said.

Many small businesses, says Walts, have made systems management a low priority, if it is one at all, and the move to e-business might mark the first time they’ve ever been faced with the issue. For instance, he says, the increased urgency for each transaction that results from an e-business initiative, requiring on-the-spot remedies for system problems, might spawn the need for a help desk in a business that has never had one before. To companies who don’t think their business is large enough to warrant such infrastructure, Walts says, in e-business there’s no guarantee that situation will remain indefinitely.

“You may start out small, but if you’ve got a popular solution you’re gonna have a lot of traffic you don’t know how to handle,” he says. “The scalability issues can hit you before you even notice it.”

This inability to predict or keep track of how fast your business is growing is inherent to the nature of business conducted via the Web, and it is the second complicating factor in systems management for e-commerce. With 24/7 availability, issues arise about what the policy should be for backing up data, when restore procedures should take effect, etc. One of the most significant changes is the expansion of your user base to unpredictable levels, including people with whom you are not in direct contact.

The unpredictability of e-business affects several facets of day-to-day business and systems administration, including customer relationship management, response time monitoring and performance levels.

“You’re not dealing with a fixed set of users, so that puts a lot of stress on your resources, your transaction capacity, all your standard system components,” Andrews Group software consultant Greg Caucutt says.

Another systems management concern that takes on greater significance in an e-business is security, at least for those organizations conducting business-to-consumer commerce via the Web. DiGiglio says she believes security is “paramount” when developing a strategy for e-commerce systems management.

Walts says he believes the dynamic nature of e-business takes some of the control out of the hands of administrators.

“The first concern is, typically, how do they get control of their development environment,” Walts says. “Then if they want to do business over the Web, they have to be able to have their customers put a lot of trust in them, and to do that you have to figure out what you’re gonna do with all this personal information. When someone places an order, that transaction is not protected anymore by a phone, where no one can see it. ... So that in itself is a major issue that needs to be handled up front.”

Like Walts, Gartner’s Paquet says the issue of control is a pivotal one for e-commerce systems management.

“I don’t think this is as big a technology change as the change we saw moving from mainframes to client/server computing. But there are major, significant technological changes,” Paquet says. “Maybe more importantly, there’s been one specific philosophical shift, which is that we don’t control things. And that’s what management is – controlling things. ...Trying to manage things you can’t control is like trying to push water uphill. In e-business, more and more of the IT components are exposed to the outside world.”

Paquet sees this control being more difficult to achieve in a B2B than a B2C arrangement. With B2C, he argues, the Web is just one more customer point of contact. However, “business-to-business requires a significant amount of collaboration between businesses,” he says. “When, frankly, often they’re not that good at collaborating within their own organizations. ... Now you’re trying to manage this collaboration externally as well as internally – that’s a huge problem.”

Priority 3: Get Help

One of the reasons for inadequate systems management efforts – for the “fire-drill mode,” as Walts describes it – is the persistent staff shortage so many companies continue to face. Rather than devoting sparse IT staff resources to preventative solutions, people are placed on more immediate projects, and administrators wait until problems arise before they worry about how to solve them.

The solution for a lack of resources, say the experts, is to ask – guess who? – the experts. The amount of help a company needs depends on what skill level they already have in-house. According to Walts, before a company can decide which of their concerns are paramount – security, backup and restore procedures, change management – they need to determine what resources they have on hand for accomplishing those goals, in order to determine how much help they need.

“What I’ve been doing really first (when consulting companies) is not even these issues at all,” he says. “I sit down with the president of the company and the chief architect and find out exactly what they want to accomplish, whether they’re in fire-drill mode or if they actually have some skills. You find that they have very little staff to get out of that fire-drill mode.”

Now the bad news: even after you’ve recognized the problem, you’ve determined your fault tolerance levels for e-business functions and you’ve hired consultants to determine the best strategy –after all that, you still might not be able to find the right tool, simply because it may not exist.

The prevalence of heterogeneous systems, the need to monitor e-business functions, the problems of scalability that arise in a Web-based transaction environment, all inflate the difficulty of managing a progressive, evolving IT infrastructure. What’s more, in many cases, the tools simply aren’t there to enable businesses to meet all of those needs.

A number of small companies, including SoftLanding, MKS, Aldon and WebTrends, address small parts of the systems management market. In the meantime, the major vendors in this space, including Tivoli Systems Inc., Candle Corporation and HelpSystems Inc. are working toward developing more heterogeneous and e-business friendly solutions, but still do not address all the needs of many businesses. Another dominant player in the market, Computer Associates Inc. is “very focused on back-end processes,” according to Tim Pickett, a software consultant in Andrews Group’s Rochester division.

This is a problem many of the vendors share, Pickett says. Part of the problem is that vendors have not yet developed fully functional systems management applications, which address all of these needs. However, beyond that, in some aspects the lack of adequate systems management tools has more to do with a lack of education on the use of existing tools, than it does with ineffective software.

“Looking at the top five vendors, they’re all aware of it, but there’s no plan for when they’re gonna do this,” Pickett says. “They talk about trying to focus on e-business, and they know it’s out there, but they haven’t made many strides toward that. They do need the tools, but the first thing that the vendors haven’t done yet is to adjust how you use their tools for these e-commerce functions – how you check these jobs and events that are specific to e-commerce.”

“The technology has not caught up with the functionality,” Walts adds. “Very typically what’s happened here is that vendors haven’t married the Web metrics and the OS metrics to be able to track a transaction through both systems. So you have a real disconnect between the system operation and the Web operation.”

But take heart, say the experts. Although it will be some time before systems management solutions are perfected, a little customization can go a long way.

“The tools are there. There may not be a complete solution that exists out there, but when our consultants go out, that’s what they’re doing – working with our customers one-on-one to build what they need," DiGiglio says. “We’re at a point in time now where this is a piece of the industry that’s growing, that’s evolving. ...Look at the credit card industry, or what happened when businesses started moving to LANs – all the tools weren’t in place when things like these first started to be used. It wasn’t pessimistic, and it didn’t turn into a disaster. There are certainly companies that are rising to the challenge.”

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