Making your Web site healthy

In the olden days (circa 1995), having a company Web site was simple. Slap together a few pages of HTML that listed where your company was located and a phone number, and you were all set. If the site went down, someone visiting the site would tell you, and you’d fix it.

Those days are gone. A majority of your business is now on the Web or is heading to the Web. You need to throw a healthy budget at the site to keep the site healthy. The complexity of the infrastructure demands better performance monitoring. The minimum requirement these days is 99.999 per cent availability. Your Web site has to perform quickly, accurately and better than your competitors’.

Several vendors today offer products and services that can help your company monitor and manage its Web site performance. Whether you choose a software product or outsource the company’s Web site management entirely, you will ultimately have to decide how to manage your Web site’s performance. You may not sell products directly to consumers, but if your company is planning to deal with suppliers and partners via the Internet, you’ll need to monitor your Web infrastructure just as much as the dot-com bookseller.

Speed isn’t enough

In the Web world, users want to complete on-line transactions quickly. Zona Research Inc. reported exactly how quickly in the summer of 1999 when it found users have about 8 seconds of patience when loading a Web page, meaning if your page takes longer, you’ve lost a customer.

Now, performance has quickly caught up to speed as a top priority among users, says Martin Marshall, managing director at Zona Research. “The first generation was ‘Just do it, get it up and running, and make money.'”

When ETrade Group Inc., eBay Inc. and Inc. broke, the market quickly defined the directive of the second generation: “Scale it.” According to Marshall, Web site performance monitoring vendors are reaching the tail end of the second generation, with everyone making the identical claim of “the most scalable capability on the Web.” Now entering its third generation, it’s time for vendors to also prove it, he says.

Proving it will cost you some money, however. Marshall says companies used to allocate 15 per cent of their IT budgets to Web site maintenance. Now he says, network managers are reporting that their on-line initiatives require 100 per cent of an IT budget just to keep up with additional requests for improved functionality and features.

To plan for the extra money, Marshall says companies should dedicate 4.5 per cent of their gross margins of transactions per month to each Web site project and base this figure on the potential profits halfway through the initiative. For example, if you plan a five-year e-commerce project, use the figures you plan on making two-and-a-half years in, because at first they will be low and at the end of five years, hopefully profits will be booming. This metric makes your expenses depend on the function of the transaction and helps you keep your specific on-line business up to speed.

“If you view e-commerce sites as a productive individual, and you want to maintain the health of the individual, how much would you pay for health insurance?” Marshall says.

Enter performance software

In response to the growing need for products to help you keep your Web site healthy, companies such as Platform Computing Corp., Netuitive Inc. and Resonate Inc. offer to monitor and manage the Web site environment to prevent network slowdowns and isolate performance problems. Like network management products, Web site performance monitoring software can keep track of the elements in your Web network, send alerts when problems arise, and report historically and in real time about application and system performance.

In addition, companies such as Computer Associates International Inc., Tivoli Systems Inc. and BMC Software Inc. are enhancing their tried-and-true network monitoring products to extend out to Web sites. For example, with its acquisition of Evity Inc. earlier this year, BMC recently integrated the acquired company’s SiteAngel Web monitoring technology with its flagship Patrol platform for network management.

Another issue is the increasing complexity of the Web infrastructure.

Phil Weaver, president of Platform Computing, maker of SiteAssure, says most organizations lack expertise in the field of Web site monitoring and performance. Part of the problem, he says, is in adapting legacy infrastructures to accommodate the new Web presence. But it has also reached the point where even the latest adopters are finally immersing their businesses into the Internet. Weaver also predicts the market will demand standards because Web site performance monitoring will have to integrate with a range of operating systems. Platform’s SiteAssure integrates with Tivoli products, but Weaver still says traditional network management products do not drill down deep enough to the true cause of performance issues.

“Immature management tools aren’t quite there in that environment,” he says.

In addition, companies on the Web are scaling up more quickly to try to stay ahead.

“The complexity and scale of applications is going up because everyone is getting more sophisticated,” says Bernd Harzog, vice-president of strategic development at Netuitive. “Competition is causing them to evolve their systems more rapidly.”

And the market is still evolving.

While Netuitive 5.0 can tell customers when a problem occurs, it still relies on the human element to fix the problems. Platform’s SiteAssure, along with Resonate’s Commander, sells products that can be programmed to lessen the need for human intervention when problems occur, although a network manager still needs to set predefined policies. Other products have “learning” agents that, based on historical reports from your network, can intelligently make a decision on what to do in a performance crisis.

Customer-focused products

Another way to attack the Web site monitoring issue is from the customer’s point of view. Some Web site performance monitoring software can simulate end-user transaction processes on your Web site, from outside your firewalls.

Agilent Technologies’ Firehunter product suite; ProactiveNet’s software of the same name; Holistix’s Remote Monitor and Web Manager products; NetScout’s nGenuis family; and Freshwater Software’s SiteScope, SiteSeer and SiteReliance products can view the Web application environment from the customer’s perspective. The varied technologies can re-enact the end-user experience, giving Web site managers knowledge about how long it takes to process a search request or a purchase order, for example. Studying the Web system at normal, low and peak times can tell network managers how to allocate resources to best serve customers frequenting the site.

ProactiveNet Inc. has developed a system of learning software that tells you what is happening on your Web site and when, and then delivers the data directly correlated to your business goals. ProactiveNet’s e-Transaction Management helps customers set thresholds and then pinpoints problems when they are not met. In the same vein, Agilent hopes to address the short attention spans of on-line users with its Firehunter family of products, specifically its Firehunter/e-Commerce product.

Katy Morrison, a consultant with San Vision Technologies who serves as process improvement manager at insurance provider American International Group (AIG) in New York, says application performance became her top priority in managing the intranet used for site brokers and the Web site for consumers. The company resources must respond quickly or they will lose customers, she says.

Morrison chose ProactiveNet to help her address application performance monitoring in AIG’s Web network. Performing ghost transactions, ProactiveNet lets Morrison test and experience the company’s Web sites as though she were an end user. After a series of ghost transactions over time, reports show performance trends and provide the information she needs to better allocate resources on the network, enhance her department’s customer service and pinpoint the true source of poor Web site performance.

“My department is application support, and the applications can get very complicated, hitting a couple of different databases and servers that are all over,” she says. “All things were being monitored, but not monitored together. Now I can see how that application is affecting the 10 network devices it’s touching.”

For example, “One application in particular was having a lot of problems, and everyone was pointing fingers at the network, saying it was the firewall servers,” Morrison says. “But it was the code in the application causing the problem.”

Let someone else do it

Finally, if you decide you want to let someone else handle the monitoring, you can always outsource. Companies such as Keynote Systems Inc. and StrataSource Inc., a managed service provider (MSP), handle all aspects of Web site performance monitoring and management.

Keynote focuses its Web site support on performance and quality measurement, and with its site management services offers a rating index on how well your site performs compared with some big on-line players. The benchmark lets you know how your company stacks up in comparison with others on-line. Keynote’s offering not only manages the site but also studies it and diagnoses the problem, which can sometimes be buried in the system.

Bob Richardson, StrataSource co-founder and executive vice-president, cites IT staffing shortages, a lack of Internet expertise and the nature of the 24×7 Web as reasons customers might want to choose an MSP.

“The interesting thing is that MSPs support both [enterprise resource planning] systems as well as e-commerce systems,” Richardson says. “You’re not supporting the e-business if you don’t support [customer relationship management applications] and all the accounting that goes with it.”

He says the key to the service that StrataSource offers is identifying performance issues and suggesting ways to permanently address and change the repeat offenders in the Web system, rather than just patching problems for the short term.

John Meier, chief technology officer at Freshwater Software Inc., says the industry changes so quickly that it’s difficult for companies to be experts in every technology that they need to stay competitive. Outsourcing can guarantee your company is getting the expertise it needs to quickly compete on-line.

“You don’t want to learn by making mistakes,” Meier says. “Most of these companies are growing so quickly they don’t have the time for major infrastructure changes. Web site monitoring [products and services] gives them a way to grow quickly and not have the management of their site be the bottleneck.”

So as you continue your journey into the quickly changing Web world, be sure to keep tabs on your Web site’s performance, because it may be the key differentiator in your business’s success.