Jumping the E-Gun

By now everyone is familiar with the systems debacle that befell online auctioneer eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com) in June. Its computers went down for 22 hours, creating the cyber equivalent of a huge "closed" sign on eBay’s front door.

The following day, eBay’s stock took a huge hit, losing $4 billion in market value -- after the company lost $5 million in revenue. Customer confidence was shaken, though the fact that a customer had to wait an extra day to purchase that blue willow tea cup was probably nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from eBay’s experience that should be heeded by the thousands of companies diving into the e-commerce pool. I have no doubt that some poor IT professionals were fired over the whole mess, although there was plenty of blame to go around.

Of course, that was the first significant thing that came out of the eBay imbroglio. EBay officials went public in laying the blame for the outage on their primary vendor, Sun Microsystems. Sun, ironically, traditionally has taken great pride in sniping at the alleged lack of reliability of its competitors’ systems. But Sun couldn’t publicly go to war with a big customer, so it tried blaming everything from the database to an unspecified human error.

In the end, one thing was clear: eBay was unprepared for a major systems failure, which is surprising when you consider its entire business depends on a functioning computer system.

Users and IT professionals should profit from its mistakes, numerous as they were. In hindsight, most of what happened was because eBay is a new, inexperienced company -- multibillion market value notwithstanding. Still, the temptations today are great to hurry systems into active production before they are ready. You as the IT professional can act as a sort of buffer or gatekeeper to forward the cause of intelligent systems deployment.

Whatever happened to backup? Every super market today has back-up generators that click on in the event of a power loss to save the refrigerated and frozen goods. Think of eBay as one huge refrigerated section of highly spoilable goods: It had no back-up generators and no systems to fall back on. At a minimum, IT should alert senior management to the need for such back-up. Beyond that, have your resume handy.

There’s no iron like big iron. The plain and simple fact is the most reliable, bullet-proof systems on the planet are proprietary mainframes. They are stronger than Unix systems of any make and at least one order of magnitude more reliable than departmental-quality servers that you find on the front ends of many e-commerce systems. Of course, they are more expensive. But when an entire business, or most of it, is riding on system reliability, expense is a relative term.

Test for stress. eBay and other e-commerce sites have been surprised, pleasantly at first, at how suddenly their online business scales up. Unfortunately many companies don’t bother to adequately stress test their systems to see if they can handle rapidly increased loads. Online transaction processing is system-intensive, and that says nothing about all the back-office processing that has to be attended to after the sale. Pretesting, therefore, is vital. Instead companies such as eBay seem to believe vendors and their misguided sales pitches about infinite scalability. That’s nonsense.

There are few models or footprints to follow. E-commerce on a grand scale is so new that the architects of these systems don’t have the luxury of looking at the extensive experience of other users. So much of this architecture is done on the fly, leaving more open to chance and carrying the risk of disaster. That’s all the more reason to be prudent in planning and deploying online e-commerce systems. Unfortunately, that is not always the posture taken by the managers who run these companies -- managers that are often more intent on making a big splash and a Wall Street-style killing. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.