Web capacity: buy now, think later?

Having enough power behind the Web to do the things your business requires is a critical issue. It has to be right or the whole world will know about...

Having enough power behind the Web to do the things your business requires is a critical issue. It has to be right or the whole world will know about it.

As the experiences of the NHS this winter show only too tragically, capacity planning is tough to get right. In IT, at least, the price of getting it wrong is not human lives. Even so, with the advent of e-commerce, the price is getting higher. Having enough power behind the Web is becoming an increasingly critical issue. It's also tough to get right.

If traditional IT applications fall over for lack of sufficient capacity, at least that only affects in-house users. But when e-commerce systems grind to a halt the entire world knows about it - instantly.

Tales of popular Web sites falling over are becoming ever-more prevalent, with potentially disastrous loss of consumer confidence and present and future business.

What makes matters worse is the fact that, while e-commerce capacity planning is universally recognised as critically essential, it is also much harder to do than traditional capacity planning.

"If capacity planning is more of an art than a science,than capacity planning for e-commerce is abstract art," says Richard Nichols, managing consultant of financial services at benchmarking experts Compass.

The problem for e-commerce capacity planning is that e-commerce is still so new that it is near impossible to plan the capacity required, because no one knows what is required until the business goes online. The established capacity models for making calculations are just not there.

Moreover, as Nichols points out, it all depends on what sort of e-business you are planning to do. If your e-customers are globally distributed - or just insomniac, as many seem to be (though perhaps that's because, so far, it's the only time they can get through to your site) - then they will not keep to UK trading hours.

The e-city never sleeps. And even if, after a while, you can start gathering sufficient statistics on utilisation to be able to chart some kind of demand graph, if your business is online brokerage, then dramatic but unpredictable changes in the Dow Jones financial index can catalyse equally dramatic and unpredictable surges in online trading.

But, stock broking apart perhaps, patterns of utilisation should emerge eventually - call centres now know that calls peak mid-morning and early afternoon,

However, even before those externally-driven patterns of usage emerge, IT will have to anticipate such things as spikes and increased demand in the wake of advertising and marketing campaigns.

When it comes to e-commerce capacity planning, "the challenges for the IT director are enormous," warnsNichols. "Businesscan't foresee them and simplyassumes that IT will fix it all."

When it comes to setting up e-business, the IT department has two choices - build or buy. Thelatter, outsourcing e-business systems to specialist companies such as Commerce One, are attractive, says Nichols,and appear to be an increasing trend.

"I think outsourcing is an elegant solution,"he says,"but you need to give considerationto whether yousee yourWeb capabilityas strategically important tothe company."

If so, there may be the usual angst aboutoutsourcing core processes. However, not only does outsourcingexportthe problem of getting capacity planning right, it also promises a fast getaway into e-business.

Outsourcers should also be able to damp down the problem of unpredictable peaks and troughs by having so much kit, serving so many different clients, that they should balance out around the total capacity available.

As ever with the outsourcing option, all the client has to do is to ensure the service level agreement is up to scratch - which, again, given the terra nova of e-commerce, may need readjustment in the light of emerging reality.

So far as build is concerned, the norm at the moment, says Nichols, is to allow at least four times the expected capacity. As usage patterns emerge with time, that can be fine tuned. Although, as Nichols points out, if e-business takes off the way the hype expects it to, then any initial excess capacity will swiftly be mopped up anyway.

At this stage, the business imperative is doing it fast, sweating the assets can come later. "The name of the game now is to throw money at it," says Nichols. "After a while you can get smarter at it."

Top tips for successful capacity planning

  • Strong communications channels with the business. You need the earliest possible warning about what the business is doing so you can look at your infrastructure and development needs. Too often business presents you with e-commerce as a done deal

  • Build a close relationship with marketing. At the moment, huge amounts of effort are going into marketing Web-based business and the timing of advertising campaigns and launches can significantly affect capacity requirements

  • Decide between build or buy. Build carries a steep learning curve and surprises will bite your leg. Buy means getting the right contract and service level agreement in place - remember, it's your brand name that will be affected

  • Ensure that management information is in place to monitor utilisation hour by hour, week by week. When things go wrong on the Web they go wrong very badly, very quickly. At the moment, e-business is directly linked to the most critical key performance indicator - share price.

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