High-Availability: A Silver Bullet for E-Commerce

The nature of e-commerce means that any failure to provide nearly instant processing of transactions may mean an instant loss of customers. After all, your competitor is just a click away.

If your server is responding too slowly —or worse, not at all — split-second decision making on the Internet may turn an online prospect into an ex-customer. The nature of e-commerce means that any failure to provide nearly instant processing of transactions may mean an instant loss of customers. After all, your competitor is just a click or two away.

"We’ve got a real problem here. Our competitors are scanning our site with robots looking for pricing information. Nobody else can get into the site," said the panicked caller. That was a real day-in-the-life of a data center manager for a online computer retailer. The dreaded phone call came at 2 a.m. on a snowy Midwestern morning in January.

The manager smartly and quickly ordered his networking staff to place a filter on the router so the snooping robot could no longer overwhelm the site. And once again, the site was open for business. "It happened in the middle of the night and there weren’t that many customers affected," says the relieved manager. "We really dodged a bullet there." A lucky break. And a happy ending. But what about next time? Just how lucky do you feel today?

The e-commerce revolution has created a class of consumers who expect to get what they want, when they want it — 24 hours a day, every day of the week. A study from Contingency Planning Research (CPR) of Livingston, N.J. demonstrates just how disastrous downtime can be. In a survey of business sectors with electronic commerce application requirements, CPR found that the financial impact of recent electronic commerce outages cost an airline reservation service $90,000, a credit-card processing operation $2.6 million and a stock-brokerage house $6.5 million in losses.

Proof Positive

The number of companies with online, mission-critical applications is rapidly expanding — especially as companies embark on Internet-enabled e-commerce applications and expand their operations into the global economy. In addition, to meet the needs of those customers, companies embarking on e-commerce projects will have to do more than simply put a database of available goods and services on a Web site. Today’s competitive landscape demands that they "bulletproof" their e-commerce applications.

"For us, being bulletproof means three things," says Gail Ennis, Vice President for Market Development for eSolutions. "First, it means enabling transactions on the Internet in high volumes and in a scalable way. Next, it means linking diverse systems together instantly. Finally, it means that the commerce system is highly available."

eSolutions, a division of BEA, is partnering with HP to add bulletproofing technologies to HP’s e-services. Leon Baranovsky, eSolutions Manager for Marketing says, "When you think of a successful online enterprise like Amazon, a couple of clicks by a customer turns into a torrent of transactions behind the scenes. There are entries made into the database for tracking purchasing habits, another set for order placement, yet another to other servers at the shipping centers."

Even application veterans recognize the need for using transaction management to guide the complex process of interrelated transactions through a business process. "But what has changed since the days of CICS and IMS," says Baranovsky, "is that the environment for transactions in electronic commerce is much more complex. Many more systems are involved and have to be connected. In the past, batched updates that ran overnight were ‘good enough’ — now, currency is critical: people expect updated information and transactions in realtime. If your company can’t provide it, your customers will find someone who can."

Back Through The Middleware And Around Again

When a user makes a couple of mouse clicks and purchases an item online, those simple clicks are transformed into a cascade of behind-the-scenes actions. On servers throughout the network inventory databases, ERP systems, accounting and order processing systems must all combine to make the e-commerce transaction seem transparent to the user. A new breed of middleware has emerged between the commerce server and traditional back-end databases to ensure that those transactions — and all their dependencies — are managed quickly and reliably. If the ability to support complex transactions on an array of platforms in diverse locations isn’t a big enough challenge, there’s also the problem of keeping all those servers available.

High Achievement

"High-availability used to be thought of as a tool provided by the operating system," says eSolutions’ Baranovsky. "Today we want it to be available at all levels of an e-commerce platform: operating system, NOS, and the electronic commerce applications. RAID may help me recover from disk problems, but we need a system that incorporates fault tolerance for the transaction and commerce parts of the system as well."

Doesn’t it cost too much to make a bulletproof electronic commerce application available 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Instead of pursuing the Holy Grail of hardware-based fault-tolerance, many IT managers use systems on relatively inexpensive platforms. Dave Follett, CEO of GigaNet (Concord, Mass.), a company that engineers high-performance interconnection hardware for clustered systems agrees that this is an important trend. "Today, the percentage cost of making a system highly available is low in terms of the total cost of the system."

It’s clear that companies pursuing electronic commerce goals are going to have to bulletproof their applications to remain competitive – but how are they going to do it?

"Customers shouldn’t have to shop around for individual solutions to each of the bulletproofing requirements. That’s what I like about HP’s e-services approach: customers and organizations should get the advantages of a single, unified solution," says Ennis.

Solutions that bring high reliability to the complex transactions of today’s e-commerce are essential. In an era where CEO’s can just look online to see which companies had embarrassing and costly online outages the previous day — and where your competitors are just a click or two away — it’s better to bite the availability bullet then to have a dead Web site. u

— Mark McFadden (mcfadden@21st-century-texts.com) is HP Professional’s Consulting Editor.