Preventing e-business pain

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Pierpoint, H.W. (2000), "Preventing e-business pain", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 28 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Preventing e-business pain

H.W. Pierpoint

Abstract E-commerce is stretching organizational resources to the breaking point as companies become dependent on key enterprise-level management characteristics such as reliability, availability, and security. The question is: How can an organization effectively address the problems that cause such enterprise pain? The author focuses on prevention building and maintaining the e-business infrastructure including the platform environment, network elements, and application components.

Keywords Internet, Infrastructure, Applications software, Reliability, Security

We have come to the e-business/e-commerce crossroads in the life of the Internet. We are stretching organizational and human resources to meet the demands of mass-market availability. More and more critical business endeavors have become dependent on key enterprise-level management characteristics such as reliability, availability, and security. Whenever one of an organization's critical e-commerce components fails (and there are more of these components today than ever before), the IT staff and managers jump through hoops, sweat bullets, and grow old before their time. This is real-life, e-business pain.

The scene grows more confusing with every new alternative or approach to engaging in electronic commerce. Without a doubt, the promise technology offers is seductive and enticing. Complicated multi-vendor service contracts and technical arrangements support both insourced and outsourced corporate functions. Responsible IT managers are engaged to provide always-on, always-secure, responsive access to the ever-widening ranges of transactional and informational demands of the business.

A scale of risk

E-commerce pain varies by company type. Within the e-business space, companies can be sorted into four categories: pre-IPO start-up, maturing startup, brick and mortar start-up, brick (click) and mortar existing e-business (see Exhibit 1). In terms of IT operational excellence, the level of business maturity is usually low for pre-IPOs, but it steadily increases. Maturing start-ups (e.g. eBay) have probably suffered some operational pain and are moving to address operational issues. Brick and mortar companies usually have the operational best practices to manage their e-business infrastructure, but they may be unsure of how to apply those practices in the e-business space or may suffer some pain while trying to implement and enforce them in the fast-paced, e-business world.

Exhibit 1 ­ A scale for enterprise-level e-business maturity risks

The dollar impact of outages is usually low for pre-IPOs, since their overall revenues are low; however, their risk may be higher in terms of loss of mindshare and investor confidence, which could severely impact their existence. As business maturity increases, the potential loss of revenues during an outage increases, but overall risk to the business is somewhat less since the company has already established mindshare and investor confidence and may have other sources of revenue.

The question is: How can an organization effectively address the problems that cause such extensive enterprise pain?

The underlying causes of e-business pain

An e-infrastructure usually spans across multiple technologies and multiple service providers. It includes all the Internet-linked computer systems, the hosted application and database environments, the spectrum of middleware and data integration software, the network itself (intranet/LAN, WAN, Internet, and extranet), and the support to keep it all running. This infrastructure goes largely unnoticed until it experiences an outage, slowdown, or security event. A number of issues throughout this broad infrastructure form the underlying causes of most e-business pain.

Time-to-market pressures cause companies to bypass or ignore sound operational practices such as application testing, scalable infrastructure, and application design for he sake of mindshare and initial revenue. The organizational pain from failing allows no tolerance or optional false starts. According to John McCain, president of EDS's business line, "Companies no longer have a choice but to migrate their businesses onto the Web expeditiously… Organizations must be better able to do this within a matter of days and weeks, not months."

The "always available, global Internet" has stressed companies, especially start-ups, to handle operational and customer service demands on a 24/7 basis. There is substantial need for integrated customer service across the Internet to support critical e-business efforts. Users not only expect a Web site to be available and provide acceptable performance, they also expect efficient and effective customer service such as an 800 number, rapid routing, and online interaction.

Increasing application complexity, e.g. firewalls, routers, load balancers, Web servers, application/middleware servers, and database servers, results in many more single points of potential failure and the need for operational support to span internal organizational boundaries. To enable successful dot-com initiation, companies such as EDS and Sun Microsystems work with small-to-large businesses in testing facilities worldwide. These operations allow a business to test its services at critical evaluation points and be assured of success in this real-time, online environment.

Lack of certification and application testing (stress testing and regression testing) due to time-to-market pressures or lack of best practices results in "buggy" applications that fail under production workload. The complexity of maintaining a positive e-commerce presence grows with every new feature, piece of software technology, computing platform, or application data set. The range of concern about managing all this efficiently is believed by some to be wider than any one vendor's approach, paradigm, or effort.

Scarcity of skilled and experienced IT staff and the realization that e-business applications require different types of support – network, platform, database, and application – cause many companies to lack both the skills and staff to support e-business. Three things are needed to address a "yet-to-mature" e-business enterprise effort: augmentation of staff capabilities, incorporation of improved formal planning methods, and the efficient accumulation of technical and process knowledge.

Lack of operational best practices occurs because infrastructure management is generally an afterthought to getting the application developed. IT organizations worldwide need to enhance their ability to develop, test, and evaluate critical management applications and systems before they do architecture and networked systems planning.

Inability to predict workload demands arises due to the global nature of the Internet and the "instant gratification" attributes of the B2C marketplace. Providing good service to the target customer audience requires proper planning and implementation through the use of staff augmentation (just-in-time staffing), knowledge transfer, organizational restructuring, integration of business processes and procedures, and consolidated implementation of a set of IT management tools, frameworks, and utilities.

By identifying the areas where e-business pain can and most likely will take place, an IT group can undertake a program to address those areas within budget.

Easing the pain

The following questions must be addressed in order to resolve some of the issues that cause e-business pain.

What constitutes a good foundation for successfully engaging in e-business? Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Computer, provides a realistic viewpoint: "To companies looking to keep pace with all the changes [in e-business], success will be determined by the strength of their Internet infrastructure – the foundation of your business." (InternetWeek, February 21, 2000.)

Improvement of the foundation begins with a focus on e-infrastructure service levels. The matrix of target elements shown in Exhibit 2 allows management to prioritize resources and approaches better to meet anticipated thresholds of e-business pain.

Exhibit 2 ­ E-business service level management

The service-management effort must be focused on delivery of service to the customer with acceptable levels specified as the bottom line. The key industry principles that can ensure successful service delivery include: availability, performance, recoverability, scalability, and security. For each of the major infrastructure components of e-business – platform, network, and application – an enterprise must have management capabilities for monitoring, configuration, readiness, security, and scalability.

"...More and more critical business endeavors have become dependent on key enterprise-level management characteristics such as reliability, availability, and security..."

A natural partnering of e-commerce organizations and users exists with the fundamental goal of delivering effective and holistic solutions out of the native mixture of people, processes, and technologies to maximize the market opportunity in this explosive digital economy.

How can a company sustain and grow its e-business? It is the conventional wisdom that the effort should start with a formal review of the business mission and the range of desired services. It involves managing the scope of the business strategy and its linkage with the IT group. Analysis includes adopting and sponsoring at the executive level a thorough IT infrastructure and e-commerce application design, technology planning guide, and organizational implementation. Looking at options such as co-location, Web hosting, and alternative service provisioning makes sense when staff shortages or organizational immaturity can be nullified by obtaining outsourced services for managing and operating the production of the e-business infrastructure.

How can an e-infrastructure initiative help a company with its e-business endeavor? The effort should use a holistic approach to addressing the complex e-business environment. Care must be taken since there are unique considerations, constraints, and priorities that should be carefully understood in terms of the business objectives for the endeavor. Alignment with the other corporate infrastructure initiatives is essential to keep the core business in a sustainable and responsive posture. Experience shows that organizations that dedicate all available resources to their e-infrastructure efforts while sacrificing their core infrastructure experience major operational difficulty within months.

The identified, prioritized, and documented e-business objectives begin to define the services and service levels that the IT group needs to deliver when building out to support the e-business properly. Service capability gaps become readily apparent during comparison activities. Documenting the current processes and procedures for doing IT support, understanding the contextual organization model, and creating a decision-tree recommendation concerning enabling tools and technologies form the next steps. Once the assessment work is completed and understood, the work with the e-business sponsor enables the IT group to design, plan, and implement an integrated solution. An integrated solution entails matching, balancing, and mapping the e-business management processes, support people, enabling tools framework, and a scalable infrastructure specifically tailored to deliver the optimized services at the desired levels to the target community.

Augmentation services from outsourcers or from consulting firms need to provide a similar framework to address the fundamental human areas of e-business endeavors. The risk is that if these areas are not addressed by practiced and experienced personnel, it will take longer, cause additional pain, and leave the organization and its business partners far removed from their bottom-line objectives.

A significant part of the overall IT goal is to provide the effective management of today's complex e-business infrastructure and environment by properly integrating and balancing the deployed utilization of enabling tools, managed processes, and knowledgeable people to achieve the business objectives of the corporation. Following these formatted steps through the use of professional, IT-proven practices is absolutely recommended in order to control costs and reduce e-business pain.

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