The Infrastructure Behind E-Commerce: A Pretty Face is No Longer Enough

How can a business make sure that their e-commerce site is always providing around-the-clock uptime to the customer?

The key is to deploy the proper Internet Traffic Management (ITM) appliance behind the infrastructure, one that includes both high availability and load balancing capabilities. To distinguish, load balancing, like an air traffic controller, involves redirecting incoming site traffic to provide optimal performance for that site; high availability guarantees that the servers and devices will always be available for the customer.

The effective solution is one that combines both high availability and load balancing. Situated between the network's routers and server array, the appliance works to continuously monitor each local server, ensuring that they are performing correctly. Then, the appliance automatically routes incoming service requests to the most available server, either locally, or across geographically dispersed sites.

In addition to providing scalability and high availability, effective Internet Traffic Management appliances should also keep the administrator in mind, as well as provide solutions for the special challenges faced when planning and designing an e-commerce site.

Look for an extended application verification (EAV) feature on the appliance you choose. EAV is a plug-in which enables IT managers to develop external programs that verify availability of applications. For example, managers can emulate what a customer would see and do while visiting a site. EAV proactively tests the transaction process, enabling managers to log onto multiple accounts, place items into a shopping cart just a customer would, verify that the credit card authorization is working properly, and complete the online financial transaction.

Traffic Prioritization

Building brand equity on an e-commerce site means taking care of your customers. The appliance you choose should allow site administrators to define access performance based on service requirements. For example, high priority access can be given to customers who are performing secure transactions - who are actually buying your product - over those who are just surfing for general information, or "just looking."

Persistence is a term that comes into play when using the appliance to load balance multiple servers, at a site which is designed to have customers return to the same server during a session. Persistence is crucial, especially when a customer's source IP address changes over the course of a session. Suppose a customer visits your site, and fills a shopping cart full of goods. Now, suppose that the customer decides to visits other areas of the site before making a final purchase. When the customer eventually returns to the shopping cart, it will appear empty. That's because the customer was accidentally redirected to a new server that is "unaware" of any previous actions. Persistence makes sure the customer is directed back to the original server where the shopping cart was originally located.

Another form of persistence, SSL Persistence, should be a key feature in the appliance you choose. This type of persistence is required when a large number of IP users are funneled into a limited number of addresses.


To prevent users or potential customers from abandoning your site, or worse, clicking to a competitors site, sudden surges (or spikes) in traffic must not slow an e-commerce site to a crawl. A successful e-commerce site must be able to immediately scale service in response to these surges.

The appliance you choose should offer dynamic load balancing algorithms in addition to the static algorithms in order to read and intelligently distribute spikes in customer demand to the most available server, giving your business the means to provide customers with quick response they expect. There are also two other critical "points of control" that businesses need to consider: control of applications and content, and control of network management.

Control of Applications and Content

A content management appliance that manages the distribution, replication and synchronization of applications and content to geographically distributed Internet servers is required. Businesses that collaboratively publish content on their Internet sites can use this appliance to hold data in a staging repository, and then synchronize final delivery across all servers simultaneously, at one or more sites -- regardless of location. The right appliance will be smart enough to compare the new content to the prior version, and only replicate the changes - minimizing bandwidth usage.

Control of Network Management

Network management tools can help managers spot potential problems before they occur, then visualize the future steps needed to keep e-commerce sites performing as they should. These tools allows businesses, in real-time, to monitor server traffic, while providing forecasting tools to assist in traffic analysis and network planning. System administrators can perform capacity planning exercises to forecast when their infrastructure will require upgrades.

For an e-commerce site, the installation of these tools can help administrators decide when and how to upgrade their infrastructure to meet increasing user demand, so that a potential customer need never be turned away because the site couldn't handle the traffic.

About the Author:

Marc Goodman is Senior Director of Marketing for F5 Networks Inc.

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