In-Depth

What's there when you get there?

WHEN YOU START UNCOVERING FLAWS IN E-COMMERCE ARCHITECTURES, what are you likely to find? That is hard to say, if only for the reason that those in the know are closemouthed. Recent news-making outages have included Charles Schwab, E*Trade Group and eBay. Press reports cite computer swaps, software upgrades and database server breakdowns as causes. Most of the changes being made, a majority of the reports indicate, were at sites under intense traffic pressure and in the throes of a quest for higher scalability.

Recent conversations with tool vendors give some indication of what they know, or think they know, is behind some high-profile (and low-profile) outages.

"An online gaming house we encountered found problems with a credit card authentication package it employed," said Andrew Cabot, vice president of marketing at RadView Software Inc., Lexington, Mass. "The authentication package worked in serial -- one-authentication-at-a-time -- and made for a significant single point of failure." [Ed note: Cabot added that the IT buyers had received assurances the process was not serial before buying, only to find the serial flaw after purchase and implementation.]

Like others, Cabot surmises that change management issues had a hand in major outages at E*Trade Group. "They were trying to manage the issue of scalability. They probably rushed a patch."

There are three elements to success, said Steve Caplow, director of marketing and business development at RSW Software, Watertown, Mass. You have to start off with a good architecture; you have to use best practices in coding; and you have to use automated testing and tuning in an iterative way during the development cycle.

"One of our customers found their first [scalability] issues when they ran a load of 15 users. They found another issue at 100 users," he said. "You have to find the bottleneck and move on to the next bottleneck. That's how they built a site that scaled to 5,000 concurrent users."

The work is on-going, noted Caplow. "If you're changing your site daily, the Web can easily turn tools into shelfware." With this in mind, RSW offers a system that lets users play existing test scripts against a new site. The company's e-Test Suite suggests changes to the test script that you can accept or reject.

In the wake of site crashing headlines, Phil Carrai, CEO at test analysis tool provider McCabe & Associates, Columbia, Md., sees a renewed interest in change management and quality assurance. "In a lot of these stories, [the developers] simply went from iteration one to iteration two. They went to a new version of a software package and it disabled something else," he said.

One Internet maven evaluating new McCabe analysis offerings for e-commerce is Sam Dobner, president, NewsAlert.com, a New York City-based provider of real-time financial and business news. Consistent and reliable software, said Dobner, is vitally important when you develop an app that a million people will see.

The temptation to roll out sites before they are thoroughly tested is, of course, a symptom of the phenomena known as Internet time. "In e-commerce, you are always trying to compress your test cycles," said NewsAlert.com's Dobner. "Internet product cycles force short test cycles."

-- Jack Vaughan

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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