Local.Net Helps To Enhance E-Buisness

Traditional merchants jumping into e-commerce often have an inadequate knowledge of the technical issues. They want consumers browsing their Web sites, viewing product photos and details and placing orders securely with a credit card. But dealing successfully with the technical underpinning to build and deploy a Web site with truly responsive service levels, one that actually encourages on-line sales activity, is key.

Obviously, e-merchants want their Web sites to be responsive, but a number of design decisions they'll need to make along the way significantly affect Web server performance and complicate that goal. Few business managers could be expected to suggest that a site serving a U.S.-only market could optimize its speed by running on a U.S.-only network. Simpler issues, such as the use of too many frames or large graphics, can also detract from a customer's experience while visiting a Web site. But slow responses are also caused by deeper technical issues - for example, transferring data across the wrong backbone.

Nature Or Nurture

Another aspect affecting performance, beyond the intrinsic design of a Web site and the selection of a proper network backbone, is the nature of a Web site's traffic and should be used to determine the best packet transfer methods. The most commonly used packet switching approach to date operates on a first-come, first-serve approach to serving Web traffic. However, many service providers would like to take the highly desirable step of packet switching that prioritizes server resources for their premier customers.

One of many possible examples is web traffic related to a retail store. In such a website, a merchant could have "checkout lanes," which could include cash-only, ten-items-or-less, or credit-card purchase order modes. By directing the cash payment customers, a group we'll assign as priority-one customers, the merchant can serve them very quickly and complete the order.Think back just a few years to 1995 when the term e-commerce had yet to be coined. It was at this time that Local.Net (San Bernadino, Calif.) took the plunge and incorporated. The first customers relied on Local.Net for e-commerce hosting, web development, order fulfillment, back end accounting, and inventory reporting. In its first year, Local.Net lured seven customers. One, the Rotolo Chevrolet dealership, led e-commerce activities by selling 11 cars a month and established car sales as a permanent feature of the Internet landscape. The dealer's presence on the Internet scene has grown since then. Rotolo expanded its online sales to include used car inventory, parts, financing worksheets, directions, customer service desk, and has even hired a dedicated Internet salesmanperson.

Another client, Ricoh, the renowned Japan-based manufacturer of photographic equipment, is well known for its technically advanced systems. More recently, one of Ricoh's newest digital cameras got the attention of PC Magazine as Editor's Choice, recognizing its feature rich and easy-to-use nature that is prominently featured in RicohÕs direct sales Web site.

The largest of LocalNets hosted sites, govtstore.com, provides secure access for government employees to more than 40,000 SKUs, and is followed closely by Cardservice, a leading transaction service for over 110,000 merchants. The company processed over $6 billion in bank-card volume last year.

By outsourcing Web site provisioning to LocalNet, these companies were able to quickly begin leveraging the Internet as a sales engine and pipeline - then take advantage of technology optimizations thereafter as often as the hardware and software evolves. These companies don't want to delay their entry into e-commerce or add to their overhead costs with in-house Web site expertise. So to provide customers with prioritized packet transfer, Local.Net uses HP's WebQuality of Service 2.0 (WebQoS) software. WebQoS 2.0 is server-based software that works with the Web server and network transport to support its features.

The Host With The Most

Local.Net hosts multiple sites on one server, an HP 90000 Model A180C, and the new provisioning service directs traffic flow according to several service levels or plans that are established. WebQoS reads the URL of the request, and URLs that match the high priority customer get more CPU power. This means that processing requests for customer URLs on one service plan type are deferred momentarily if a customer URL on a higher priority plan comes in at the same time. Additionally, WebQoS enables the company to inform site visitors how quickly their request will be completed.

Local.Net developers, working closely with HP's WebQoS product engineering group, were among the first to apply the e-business enhancements commercially. Most Web sites are not integrated well with real-time inventory data. By leveraging WebQoS technology to apportion and prioritize service it is possible now to implement a unique advantage, one which figures prominently in Ricoh's Web site. A bulleted feature is displayed for customers who are filling out orders online. It calls attention to the fact that if a product is not in stock, then the site will prevent users from ordering it saying, "If we do not have it in stock, we will let you know ahead of time."

Web site users who think they deserve some preferential treatment and response from vendors may be right. But for web site developers, this has been a real problem, there has not been an efficient way to provide server priority to preferred customers.

Ins And Outs Of WebQoS

Using WebQoS, Local.Net's engineering team can now offer differentiated services. Internet software and routing equipment can tag IP packets, creating the mechanism for distinction and for enhanced levels of service. This capability is at the heart of HP's WebQoS, which allows HP 9000 and other servers running HP-UX to stabilize service during periods of heavy demand, optimize equipment use, prioritize customers and enable Local.Net to deliver consistently exceptional Web-based Internet service.

There are three key aspects underlying WebQoS: peak usage management, user class tagging, and service class identification. Peak-usage management, similar to the "take a number" method of traffic control is used in many face-to-face customer service situations. The software can limit the number of a siteÕs concurrent users to keep a service provider's performance high and help avoid failures. With a soon-to-be released feature, users trying to access a full site may be shown a window with a clock counting down until the site is available - this window then automatically connects them to the site. Identifying user classes allows Local.Net to assign priorities and offer higher service levels to its premier customers.

Service providers can use WebQoS to offer quality of service assurances to their customers' customers. For example, a banking Web site can assign Level 3 Quality of Service to its corporate accounts to make sure they get the fastest, most efficient use of the Web site, over less profitable customers. System resources are prioritized, as previously described, to ensure that priority transactions, such as purchasing, are given precedence over general browsing.Even among the most prominent service sites today, there exists security gaps. Solving these concerns was a priority for Local.Net. One can gauge the need for "industrial-strength" handling of security from govtstore.com.

Another element of the technology solution answers the need of companies to streamline and automate tax and shipping calculations. Govern-ment legislation for taxing Internet purchases has as much potential impact on e-commerce as the 1996 deregulation of the telecommunication industry did, and businesses want to build systems now with the flexibility to adapt if that happens.To improve customer service, a company weighs the cost of its investments in e-commerce technology (i.e., the client-server hardware, back-office software, databases, and network management tools) with service costs it ultimately asks customers to pay. Local.Net sees a unique niche that was not previously cost-effective to serve. By configuring the right mix of Web-enabled technology, it's supporting a range of Web hosting services at commensurately graduated costs.

The approach will clearly appeal to a wide spectrum of companies who want to refine their e-business processes, beyond basic web site development and hosting, and take steps forward with features for Quality of Service, online store designs, order fulfillment, and credit card clearing.

We've looked at some sophisticated operating features of Web sites based on HP WebQoS and, ordinarily, one would think these are targeted primarily to medium-size and larger companies. But the Internet is for everyone, and Local.Net took steps to support the many smaller companies that are just acquiring online, e-business capabilities. Local.Net developed an on-line Web-design application.

Using this hosted application, newcomers to e-commerce can bypass the delay and cost of an agency to do Web design and setup (users select from graphic templates and are prompted for part numbers, description, prices, etc.) For about the cost of a regular e-mail account with Compuserve or AOL, a business can now open an on-line store in a matter of a few hours.

In the year 2000, virtually no industry will forgo e-commerce opportunities. It's just too important to miss. Companies will need to have an e-commerce presence to remain competitive and those who find more profitable ways to make their Web sites work will be ahead of the game. Using differentiated provisioning is one more way to sell online services while providing exceptional treatment to preferred customers - all while improving the shopping experience for consumers.