Check out your pressure points

E-business makes complex demands on IT infrastructure, but tackling six key areas can make all the difference. Mark Vernon...

E-business makes complex demands on IT infrastructure, but tackling six key areas can make all the difference. Mark Vernon reports

IT directors can see that e-business should be taken seriously. They also realise that e-business exerts a range of pressures on the IT infrastructure. But what is less clear is what the serious infrastructural issues within e-business are. Not atypical is the experience of Mirror Group Newspapers, looking to implement a modest e-business solution to replace its paper-based purchasing system. "We spent almost two years looking for a suitable product, but nothing we saw met all our requirements," says John Hemple, deputy finance director. "One or two came close, but using them would have meant making major changes to the ITinfrastructure, which ruled them out on cost grounds." The company eventually went for a Notes-based solution developed by Tranmit.

So where is the challenge to the IT infrastructure? First, it is important to have a handle on what e-business is. "E-business is just another channel to market," says David Green, European vice president at Relativity. But this is not to say that there is no challenge in it. Consider the case of Direct Line, who with the launch of a telephone channel famously shook the car insurance industry to the core. "The reason why traditional insurers took three or four years to catch up was because their technology could not deliver on the service Direct Line was providing that gave people cover in just a few minutes," he says. The implication is that e-business as a new channel can initiate similar market forces through radically changing expectations.

So, returning to the original question about infrastructure, where are the pressure points likely to be felt?

In a number of areas e-business calls the IT infrastructure to account, some new, some more familiar. They can be considered in turn, beginning with the familiar.

Availability, scalability and performance

Availability, scalability and performance has been the mantra of systems suppliers since the first computer was sold. But with e-commerce the demand for these features has been given a new boost.

Availability, for example, matters like never before when the Web is the shop front and the competitor is only a click away, to say nothing of the bad publicity that even the most celebrated e-brands have suffered when a reputation for poor availability or frequent down-times has set in.

Performance and scalability take on a renewed significance when the Web is the medium of business and a slow or lumpy site is tantamount to a grumpy sales assistant. "The technological implications of e-business are non-trivial," says Richard Nichols, head of business consulting at Compass Management. "Web servers need to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, response times need to be instantaneous and interfaces to legacy systems need to be transparent. Capacity planning is suddenly a nightmare as the user community becomes globally based."

In fact, one of the more surprising results of research into IT performance in general is that up to 80% of faults are due to people and processes, rather than technology per se. Thus the IT infrastructure needs to deal with issues beyond the purely technical. Methodical and well-organised procedures for IT support are as critical for the e-business infrastructure as are means of distributing loads, managing bottlenecks or providing disaster recovery.

The problem is compounded since e-business raises people's expectations of IT. Before, mission critical systems performing, say, online transaction processing, could be operated in isolation. On the other hand, if the file and print server crashed that was at worst an irritant and so only limited resources were required to cover their availability.

Today, however, even the messaging system must be up 24/7 since, as people expect to be able to pick up the phone, they also expect to be able to send and receive e-mails. In addition, e-business tends to make systems formerly restricted in use available to a much wide audience. Middle management, for example, might now have decision support tools interrogating enterprise databases at hundreds of desktops. Before, these services would have been confined to a handful of individuals, "upstairs".

Integration

The importance of integrated systems for the e-business infrastructure is well made by Mike Blake, data marketing consultant at IBM Software Business. "Our view of e-commerce systems is simple. They have to be integrated," he says.

The point is that a Web site bolted onto legacy systems is temporary, no matter how attractive it might seem to start with. Certainly access and price are the big drivers in e-business now, but sooner or later companies will want to add value to products, which means that application islands will have to be reattached to the mainland.

"If you are going to build a relationship with the customer then systems have to be integrated with one another. If you do not [integrate], you are nuts because then you just become a commodity player selling simply on the lowest price," Blake continues.

However, integrating systems in the e-business world looks rather different from the way solutions have been integrated in the past. "One of the problems is that, typically, legacy systems are all jumbled up," says Relativity's Green - the people facing bit, the data facing bit and the processing facing bit are interwoven together. "For e-business, the sections of code that form the user interface, that find data and that drive the business process need to be separated out. If the data retrieval component can be isolated from the interface then a new application can be built far more quickly. And similarly with the workflow too."

John Pyke, Staffware's chief technical officer, takes the case of workflow enabled e-procurement, one of the fast developing areas of e-business. Here the goal is to achieve straight through processing (STP), in which workflow is better seen as a kind of middleware, a layer in the IT infrastructure available to various systems that run from front to back office, and across the enterprise. "Workflow has connected people to people and people to process," he says. "Eventually it will link one end of the process to another, without necessarily involving people at all."

Security

Security is a perennial concern. For all the claims of IT vendors, various surveys claim that over 50% of companies have suffered a breach in the last two years, with many not recognising the attack until long after the event. One key to the puzzle is understanding that technology in itself will not secure open networks. The trouble is that companies take the wrong, or at least an inadequate, approach to the issue. "A point solution like a firewall is not enough," says Geraint Evans, product marketing manager for network integrators Chernikeeff. "The important point is to deploy a whole methodology in approaching security."

On the one hand the e-business infrastructure needs to move away from the traditional model of placing firewalls at low-speed demarcation points since this creates bottlenecks in what should be fluid networks. And other aspects of the security strategy must be approached intelligently too.

For example, the greatest source of breaches is not the hacks or viruses that steal the headlines, but the internal leaks of disgruntled or dishonest employees. So, at a basic level, user authentication via a password is a necessity, but additionally passwords should be changed frequently and not allowed to be chosen intuitively. At a corporate level, a thorough-going policy is required, assessing access from different locations, for example it is far easier to penetrate systems via dial-up connections than from LANs in the office.

Flexibility and speed

So-called "Internet time" - the way that e-business tends to accelerate business cycles - is another issue that has implications for the IT infrastructure. "The IT manager is no longer looking at spending two years and £5m to take a line of business to the Web," says Steve Cauble, UK and Eire country manager at connectivity specialists WRQ. "They are looking for the kind of flexibility where the legacy system is untouched, but information can be mined easily and integrated into the total Web solution."

This is no trivial matter and banks are a classic case. An enormous investment on mainframe infrastructures in the 1970s and 1980s has left them with technology often simply incapable of delivering the kind of information required for e-business.

Apart from a handful of cases, notably in the online brokerage space which, though successful, represents a tiny proportion of transaction volumes as a whole, most of the effort in technology investment is thus spent on developing front end systems just to overcome the limitations of the legacy.

Christian Denning, software development manager at e-Net Software, points to another issue. "Let's take the example of a SAP system as the back office system," he says. "In order to fully integrate with the e-commerce solution, the SAP system has to be updated to cope with the expected load."

This will affect the underlying database as well as the machine running SAP. "Any back office system that e-business integrates with has to be able to respond well in under one second for any request - prices, stock levels, order status, and so on. This will normally require a 'beef up' of existing systems," he continues. Smart e-commerce platforms would be capable of cacheing some of this information for a given time, for example, in order to limit the load on the back office system.

A more welcome problem is a result of the success of Web sites once launched. Lucky companies have been astonished by their popularity and the volume of traffic they attract more or less overnight. This run-away experience is totally different from the successful launch of a channel based upon a physical infrastructure, notably in the need for it to scale. And that does not just mean in terms of servers, but business processes too.

ISPs

On the other hand, companies can find themselves caught out because of inadequate service level agreements or limited liability clauses with technology partners. One problem peculiar to e-business concerns Internet service providers (ISPs). The service that ISPs can provide, notably in terms of dealing with "bursts" of Web hits, varies enormously.

"If the e-commerce solution is hosted in-house, a sufficient pipe to the Internet has to be put in place," says Denning. "If the solution is hosted with an ISP, a leased line from the ISP to the company has to be installed that is big enough to handle the traffic from the e-commerce solution to the back-office." This problem might extend to logistics too.

"If there are procedures for ordering and delivery already in place that can handle additional load from the internet, these differences will be all an IT director will have to worry about. Otherwise, systems to handle ordering and delivery will have to be put in place as well," he adds.

Generally speaking, those ISPs that own their own Internet backbones are able to offer a far more flexible service in this respect, though that might be offset by a depersonalisation of service which can be important if, for example, fixes to a Web site need to be performed quickly or regularly.

Thinking strategically

The point then is that a true e-business infrastructure is different. The idea is to build a strategic, enterprise-wide technology base, as opposed to ad hoc, isolated departmental servers. Herein lies the challenge, especially to organisations lumbered with legacy systems or a culture that cannot think laterally.

"One of the defining characteristics of e-business is having a business led IT strategy," says Michael Di Pietro, managing director of AMR Research. "This means applications must be focused on business processes, not on functions or products." Similarly, managers not used to thinking in terms of processes will find this a tough change to negotiate.

In other words, e-business sounds like it is a technology problem, and it is, but only in a secondary sense. The project cannot be treated in isolation, but needs to involve everyone in the organisation. Therein lies a whole new issue for the IT director.

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