A reliable computing future?

A reliable computing future?

Recently I suggested that the industry as we know it today is reaching critical mass and is due for a major change. Here's one specific reason this change is inevitable - reliable technological interdependence.

Consider this hypothetical, but not unrealistic, scenario.

The time: the near future.

The place: your business.

You are the biggest online toy store in the world. You grew quickly because you built your empire on a virtual inventory. With no investment in inventory and no middleman, the overhead for the business was practically nil.

You've had your ups and downs, though. A few years back, customers might order a skateboard that you could only get from a distributor by placing a phone call or sending mail. Even when you had the product sent directly to the customer, it could be days or even weeks before the delivery was actually made. As a result, some of your competitors ate into your business by keeping an available inventory of difficult-to-get items.

But now electronic-commerce is virtually universal. Distributors are a thing of the past!

When a customer places an order for that new fusion-powered skateboard, the smart-card credit is approved by your software, and the order is immediately forwarded to the vendor, Fusion Skateboards, whose software approves the request based on the current status of your account. Fusion then ships the requested model directly to the customer, adding only one set of delivery costs to the transaction.

It all runs smooth as silk. Except for one thing - Fusion's servers went flaky and missed some orders again this week. That's the fourth time this year, and it's only July. You're considering pushing a similar skateboard from another vendor because your customers are blaming the delivery delays on your business.

When electronic-commerce becomes the standard conduit for business transactions, the dependability and inter-operability of your machines and your business partners' machines could mean the difference between success and bankruptcy. If your machine gets the equivalent of a dead line or a busy signal once too often, users will go somewhere else. That vendor will eventually get with it or file for bankruptcy.

One could argue that this is already the case. But I predict the business world ain't seen nothin' yet! Today, customers and businesses are somewhat tolerant because most transactions are likely to have a slow and error-prone link in the chain somewhere.

Just wait until everyone gets spoiled on the instant gratification of pure electronic-commerce. The increased sensitivity we'll have to delays and mangled orders is going to go right to somebody's bottom line.

Individual companies won't be able to confine this kind of problem and solve it on their own networks. Widespread Internet-based electronic-commerce will put much greater demands on the inter-operability, scalability, and reliability of the solutions chosen.

No company can control its business partners' computers, communication software, and operating systems even if those businesses are in the same building.

Therefore, what we need is a total commitment to standard Internet protocols.

As for scalability, being unable to respond to greater-than-expected demand can be devastating. America Online is still recovering from the flat-rate fiasco. Imagine if AOL made that same mistake in a more crowded and competitive market.

Finally, reliability will no longer be a luxury. Most businesses seem to tolerate daily operating system and application crashes as if they are unavoidable side-effects of modern technology. They glide along blissfully ignorant of alternatives because the damage to the bottom line is not immediately obvious. Minutes of damage to electronic-commerce, however, can mean millions of dollars lost.

As I finish this column, I recall today's experiences - my system crashed three times, I couldn't get to a Web site because of a problem with the AGIS Internet backbone, and the Pentium Pro I was using for word processing became sluggish while scanning an image in the background. I can't help but think that the computing world of tomorrow will have to look quite different. How about you?

Nicholas Petreley is editor in chief at NC World ( can reach him at

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