The Growing Concern Over E-Commerce Reliability

It was Monday evening, April 12, three days before the country's most dreaded annual event -- tax day. Intuit Inc. (www.intuit.com), owner of TurboTax, the most widely used software for tax filing, shut down the filing system for what company officials called a voluntary and much-needed backup.

Unfortunately the "voluntary" shutdown lasted 12 hours. Thousands of impatient procrastinators were directed to a page that said the service was temporarily unavailable. By the next day the service was back up, but many in the industry were left scratching their heads as to why in an age of 24x7 e-commerce, a site as large as TurboTax doesn't have a procedure in place that would prevent against this inconvenience, voluntary or not.

"It's sloppy system management on their part," says Geoffrey Bock, senior consultant for the Patricia Seybold Group (www.seybold.com). "Obviously, a business strategist would say on April 12, it's libel to be a busy day."

Robert Blodgett, a spokesman for Intuit, explains that Intuit was aware that it was April 12, but was more worried about April 13, 14 and 15. He says the company expected data flowing in would be enormous and that a shutdown any later than the twelfth would be unacceptable. He also explained that before this incident, TurboTax performed regular backups every Friday, and that those usually lasted 11 hours. Experiencing a heavy load over the weekend and foreseeing an increase in demand, he says a shutdown was unavoidable for that Monday.

The Patricia Seybold Group's Bock disagrees. "I would say that there are many examples of large scale interactive systems that consistently run effectively 7x24," Bock says, pointing to Amazon.com as one example. "There are many different kinds of technologies available" to prevent this from happening.

John Butler, president and CEO of Network Integrity Inc. (www.networkintegrity.com) says his company provides one such solution with its LiveVault software. LiveVault continuously backs up files while servers are still running. "Backups are a thorn in everybody's side and you have to do it on a fairly regular basis," Butler says. He explains that industry solutions just haven't been able to keep up with the rapidly expanding e-commerce market.

There are less proprietary solutions to the problem as well, explains Bock, such as partitioning servers to run while others back up. The operation can be expensive but it seems a site as large and profitable as TurboTax should have had no problem implementing it. Although Intuit could not elaborate on its operation for security reasons, Bock hypothesized that it could be an example of an older, weaker infrastructure that is trying to take on the present day madness that is e-commerce. "Most of this stuff cannot be added on as an afterthought. Reliability and integrity have to be designed into a system from the get go," Bock expounds.

Whatever the reason, the news and subsequent concern over the shutdown is a function of how important the online world has become to ordinary Americans. "We're really in a transition of seeing our accessed online resources such as Intuit being taken for granted as if they are a utility that we rely on to do our work," Bock says. "For the online industry, they have to be able to provide us the reliability to online service that we've come to expect in the [utility] industry."

Despite the problems, Intuit reported record usage of the site with 1.6 million returns filed electronically using TurboTax/MacInTax and WebTurboTax. Intuit's Blodgett says those using WebTurboTax were unaffected by the shutdown.