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KITBAG: Web Insight

KITBAG: Web Insight

While the dot-com downfall may have stopped companies from surreptitiously placing an "e" at the front or a ".com" at the end of their names, the e-slump.com hasn't stopped them from making the most of Web sites themselves. In both the corporate realm, where it is indeed hard to find a company without some kind of a Web presence, and the SME markets, a Web site is increasingly becoming the norm.

Last year a survey of Australian SMEs' attitudes to e-commerce found that 25 per cent of small businesses had a home page, and 60 per cent were Internet connected. The report, produced by the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) and Telstra subsidiary Pacific Access, also found that 43 per cent of those businesses connected to the Internet used it for advertising, while 25 per cent used it for orders and payments.

Increasingly, businesses are taking advantage of the benefits of a Web site. However, they are also learning that managing a Web property means more than just checking download times and counting hits.

Web site management today includes both technology and business-related issues, such as the monitoring of access, content delivery, and the tracking of commercial transactions. It includes collecting detailed data on traffic, and interpreting it for the benefit of both network and marketing managers.

The tools of trade

Steve Dixon, managing director of enterprise management systems company, Full Spectrum, says Internet and e-commerce management is often done on a wing and a prayer. He says while there are tools available which can deal with disruptions, traffic, content and e-commerce transactions, they are not being put in place or used properly.

"These are not just technical solutions, but decision support tools that have quantifiable business benefits," says Dixon. "For example, there are tools that create applets which measure end-user experience on the Web, gauging where they look and what they click on, as well as how quickly the site responds to their requests.

"There are other tools that can prioritise services - you can set up preferences to those who are actually accessing buying applications as opposed to those who are just window shoppers."

Dixon says enterprise management, or operational support systems (OSS) can be proactive, monitoring applications, network and systems infrastructure, and alerting users to potential trouble spots. "Knowing where the danger areas are means you can optimise systems; it's not just a reaction to disasters but a way of making what you currently have continue to work at maximum efficiency," he says.

"In other words, OSS should be part of the business management; it can help both IT and non-IT professionals make strategic as well as tactical business decisions.

"With OSS, you can undertake capacity planning and trending analysis. This will prevent the sort of infamous disaster as happened at the Victoria's Secret Web site in February 1999, when an increase in traffic brought havoc to the system. The sad thing is the marketing department anticipated, and even encouraged the increase, but the IT department was just not prepared."

Monitoring and testing

The general manager for Internet traffic management company Radware Australia, Tony Burke, says Web management has become sophisticated very quickly.

Web monitoring, he says, has developed in the past two years as companies have realised the necessity for a comprehensive Web monitoring and management solution. "What we call passive reporting has evolved into the development of content-aware hardware, and Internet traffic management solutions which proactively act on changes in the network transparently," says Burke.

Aaron Brown, the systems engineer manager for Web management solutions provider Mercury Interactive, says historically companies have been unaware of not only the risks involved with neglecting Web management, but also the benefits derived from carrying it out successfully.

Brown says he believes companies have changed their attitude over the past 12 months. "Companies used to think that anything that occurred ‘once the pipe had left the building' was not their problem; however, they are starting to realise that it is," he says. "And when there is a problem with a site, the users will more often blame the owner of the site, rather than the ISP or their own PC."

Mercury Interactive offers both a pre-live load testing service, which tests how a site performs under different conditions before it goes live on the Web, and a 24x7 performance solution, which monitors the on-going activities of a site once it has been launched. This includes the testing and monitoring of site visits, transactions, load times and content delivery using Mercury Interactive's global server and POP networks.

Brown says Mercury Interactive performed 1,000 performance tests on Web sites last year, of which 98 per cent had critical problems - but 89 per cent of those suffered from problems which were "easily fixable".

"Our aim is to make sure the end user has a good experience on the Web site, and to interpret how different circumstances will impact on the business itself," says Brown.

The Australian and New Zealand content delivery networks manager for Network Appliances, Harry Christian, says managing Web site content is about the intelligent movement of information.

Proper Web content management offers benefits such as Web acceleration, and a decrease in bandwidth costs. "Our Content Reporter solution lets managers see who is looking at what content and at what time, which is a benefit to a network manager as well as a powerful marketing tool," says Christian.

In September last year, Network Appliances leveraged its data centre and caching capabilities with the purchase of the US content management solutions developer WebManage for $US75 million. Christian says WebManage was the glue which gelled Network Appliances' existing data and caching services together, to provide content delivery and reporting for corporates and SMEs.

Nick Verykios, the Westcon Australia group general manager, says smart switches for the Web will be the next big trend in hardware.

"All the large organisations embarking on e-business and e-commerce - and whatever else they choose to call their ‘e-initiatives' - will all need intelligent switches to make Internet transactions work," he says. "Web switches are built to recognise a high degree of detail about the traffic they handle. They know what traffic is important and what isn't, and make informed decisions."

Verykios says research by switch vendor Arrowpoint, which was recently purchased by Cisco, has shown that up to 60 per cent of online shopping baskets are dropped by Web servers before users commit to a purchase.

"Transaction drop-outs occur, in part, because load balancing equipment redirects customer inquiries to less busy servers whenever it sees an opportunity. This certainly helps smooth out traffic, but when a Web customer is half-way through a transaction on one server, and they're moved to another, the transaction is lost in the process," he says.

Solution providers are not the only ones predicting a boost in Web management technology. Research company IDC predicts the market for content load balancing solutions will increase from $203 million in 1999, to $4 billion in 2004, while the US-based Internet Research Group predicts the Web content-smart equipment market, will be worth $US828 million per year by 2002.

Web Awareness

Web content-aware switches

Purpose-built for the Web, these content-aware switches can act on information held deep within messages transmitted over the Internet.

Web switches "know" what is being requested, who is requesting it, the location of the best server for that information, and the number of replica sites available.

Web switches are designed to deliver the correct information at the fastest speed to Web site users, and can allow specific visitors preference when it comes to accessing a site during busy periods.

Web switches also secure connections between customers and Web sites, reducing the chance of transaction drop-outs.

Web accelerators

Web accelerators are designed for high-traffic sites. As e-business grows, Web accelerators will guarantee the speed and availability needed for the service level the industry requires.

Web accelerators detect a user's Web browser type and connection speed in order to optimise the content being sent, as well as improve speed and reliability of Internet traffic through Web hosts. Web accelerators also address problems associated with congested bandwidth resources on enterprise-wide area networks and the Internet.

Web load tests

Web load tests are designed to measure the performance of Web applications such as Web sites. Load tests measure the scalability, traffic capacity and download times of sites by emulating the traffic of a specified number of users, identifying and isolating bottlenecks and improving user experience.

Web load tests include requirements management, test planning, test execution, defect tracking and analysis. Solutions allow project testing to be tracked and documented, thus aiding in determining an application's readiness. Load testing can also be utilised for the testing of developing Internet applications, such as WAP and streaming media.


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