Whether you want to make money from the Web or simply get yourfor a successful Webmaster. Management is a whole new battle, says Danny Bradbury. message across, management is key. If you are paying an ISP to manage your Web site for you, then you have solved half of the problem - but only half.
If you are managing it yourself, then you need to be supremely confident in your ability.
The first thing to remember about running a Web site is that, to be effective, it requires input from many different sources, including technical staff and business employees alike, according to Barry Collins, Internet business manager at PC giant Dell. Unless a company takes this holistic approach to site management, a Web-based system can be technically excellent, but useless for the business. Dell collects $14 million (£8.7 million) per day from sales across its Web site, according to Collins, and recently introduced an online superstore stocking thousands of third-party products.
Consequently, Collins runs four dedicated Internet teams, containing a total of 150 employees. On the business-oriented side, one team handles content provision on the site, while another manages business development, with people responsible for utilising the Web as a channel to market.
From a technology perspective, the site operations team handles the day-to-day running of the site, while the technology deployment team's remit is to identify new applications that can be integrated into the site.
Keeping it consistent
Any good content management team will contain a workflow structure to ensure that content is consistent and accurate. Olivier Thieory, vice president of marketing for directory management software vendor Mission Critical, argues that it would be helpful to be able to audit content production and introduction so that a company could have complete control over what went online, and make people accountable for what they produce.
David Walsh, European solutions engineer for Internet and intranet authoring software vendor NetObjects, says that creating a proper structure for content management is essential if a company is to protect itself against potential damage.
One danger is that companies without a structure will find it increasingly difficult to control their content as the number of departments and environments grows. Producing a commonly available content distribution system will help them to circumvent this problem, he says. Imposing a structure where input is collated and assessed by a senior member of staff with more access privileges will prevent underlings from changing text and images unduly, he says. While managing content input is a core NetObjects area, it is also something that MCS wants to control by governing employee status and access rights using its network directory management tools.
Microsoft is attempting to address the content contribution problem with Office 2000, launched today. The company has tied its FrontPage Web development product in with the rest of Microsoft Office, enabling it to take content saved in HTML format from other Office applications, according to Peter Willams, FrontPage product manager at the company. It has also enabled individuals to publish directly to Web servers, so that intranets and Internet environments can be updated directly where necessary, while including authorisation elements for companies wanting to impose a more hierarchical structure onto their content management.
FrontPage 2000 includes a subscription service to Web folders, so that when team members responsible for content production upload content to a folder, the line manager responsible for authorising it can be notified.
"When I talk to customers that operate that process today, the content creation process could introduce a week-long delay before the content gets published," says Williams. "They see that as a barrier to using the Web, but if a Web team is being proactively notified, they are literally going to take the content, check it and whack it up somewhere so that the links work. That means that they can do it more quickly."
A dynamic change
Static content - where information is displayed and little interaction is offered to the end user - presents an organisational problem to any management team. This represents only a fraction of the management challenge now, because static content is being increasingly superceded by dynamic content. Dynamic content is presented to Web users based on the selections that they make, and often comes from a back-end database. Good examples of situations where dynamic content is needed are e-commerce sites and reference sites where information is displayed according to certain criteria selected on a form.
According to Jerry Davis, technology planning manager at Web consultancy NetSolve, running these integrated back-end databases smoothly can pose a challenge to Web site managers, especially when the workload is difficult to predict. "On the static server all you had to do was accept incoming Web requests and accept outgoing pages," he says. "Now you have to handle the incoming request and assemble a request for processing to a database, wait for information to come back, organise it and present it to the user over the network." Consquently, Web site managers have to have a handle on database connection software and standards, LAN communications, network hubs or switches and server systems. This can be daunting in a heterogeneous environment where different components use different computing technologies.
Mixing static and dynamic content can be handled effectively, as long as the tools that the business managers use to build the static content are flexible enough to provide easily definable links to dynamic resources.
Dharmesh Mistry, technology director of Web site consultancy Entranet, emphasises the danger of turning your Web site management mechanism into a dual-track system where the static and dynamic content management schemas never meet.
If the tools are adequate, then the dynamic links can literally be dragged and dropped into the static pages, enabling the two types of content management to be pulled together. Broadvision is a good example of a Web development company binding these two types of content management together, says Mistry.
A smooth back end
None of this content management will get you anywhere unless your back-end infrastructure runs smoothly enough to deliver it to the audience quickly and reliably. This is where the task of technology management creeps in, and the first thing on the agenda here should be security.
Firewalls are a no-brainer, but making sure that you configure them correctly is vital, as is positioning the server properly. Do you put the Web server inside the firewall, or do you put it outside - still on your network, but in a loosely protected, "demilitarised zone"? The former gives you the ability to manipulate the server more easily from inside the organisation, and also to connect it more seamlessly to the rest of your network, giving you easy access to operational corporate data. The latter approach is effectively a means of quarantining your Web server. In this scenario, companies will normally load the data to be published onto the Web server at set intervals rather than granting end-users real-time access to the system.
One company that has done this effectively is Sun, which runs its SunSolve technical support Web servers in a demilitarised zone in front of a rebadged Checkpoint One firewall. This makes it very easy for the company to deliver regular updates to the technical support information on the server via its internal network, which are then routed through to the Web server by a Cisco 7000 router. The customers can then access all of the relevant information on the server without having to penetrate the secure network.
The only information passed back through the firewall are e-mailed queries from customers that need special attention, but the nature of the firewall means that this access can be carefully controlled.
Managing content on a static site requires an understanding of both fault management and performance management, says Netsolve's Davis. A good fault management policy needs to run at different levels, he says. Web site managers need to examine their systems at the machine level, checking resources such as hard drive storage, RAM and CPU usage. They also need tools that will check their systems at the operating system level, looking at areas such as thread management, for example. Finally, they will need to check the system at the application level itself.
Items that need to be checked constantly in a static or a dynamic Web server environment include the level of RAM that is being used, and how much swap space is being used - if you run out of swap space, then the machine will probably go down, says Davis. "Zombie" programs are another area to look out for - these unused programs may be running needlessly and taking up valuable system time.
Monitoring the system in this way will also help you in your performance and capacity planning, says Davis. When the business manager asks you how many days out it is from having to buy additional hard drives and memory, you should be able to tell him. This is part of running a Web site as a profitable, self-sustaining business resource.
How much can traditional systems management tools help you with such fault management and performance planning tasks? Not as much as they should, contends Davis. He argues that the existing tools have difficulty crossing corporate firewalls. This means that companies running their Web servers in a demilitarised zone, with a firewall separating them from the rest of the network, will experience problems.
Another problem is that many of the tools do not yet support Linux or Apache. The freeware operating system and Web server are a popular combination for Webmasters.
When you move from a static content environment to a dynamic, transactional one, expect your management costs to increase your existing systems management costs by two, warns Davis. This is because you will need to pull in management resources from different groups, including network management, operations and applications development. There is often a disparity between the back office PC group that manages the Web server, and the mainframe or database server group that governs the data layer, he explains. This needs to be levelled if everything is to work.
Balancing a heavy load
Load balancing can also be used to manage the performance problem. Because the best estimates of Web site workload are normally wrong, putting in two or more servers that can juggle the load between them is often the best way of handling peaks and troughs in demand. Buying a router or switch-based load balancing will enable you to pass off user sessions or individual queries according to a predefined algorithm.
One final thing to remember when managing your Web site is bandwidth.
The most efficient server infrastructures will be left choked and useless if data can't be downloaded quickly enough to satisfy end-user demand.
Make sure that your ISP's back-end link is fast enough, preferably measuring it in Mbps or even Gbps, rather than Kbps. Ideally, this should be a direct link through to an Internet exchange such as the London Internet Exchange (LINX). If you are running your server yourself and connecting it to an ISP rather than having the ISP host it for you, you will also need to ensure that you have a good connection yourself. It is possible to aggregate multiple ISDN lines, although if you anticipate a growth in bandwidth demand, it may be worth considering leased Kilostream or Megastream lines at the outset.
Security, bandwidth, server management and content organisation are the four main struts of any good Web server strategy. Get it right, and you will be able to satisfy any surfers' desires. Get it wrong, and you risk alienating your company from its customer base, and throwing money into a digital black hole.
CASE STUDY: DIXONS
You can expect more management challenges as your online operation grows in size. When an organisation gets as large as the Dixons group, designing and managing an effective e-commerce system can become a headache.
Mike Nevin, visual merchandising director at the company, explains that the group has a variety of online commitments, including the PC World online site.
"The key criteria is that front-end design has to be simple. It has to take into account how the site will be updated and kept topical," he says. Dixons Online attempts to impose as little human interaction as possible during the sales process. Nevis claims that the system uses real-time communication with the host, and says that products are distributed from central warehouses by courier, rather than picked from stores.
One of the things that he learned from Dixons Online was the importance of including a central product information database that could be updated automatically, he explains. When you're a high-volume business with lots of different product offerings, it makes sense to minimise the effort required to alter your online information. This keeps your overheads lower and means that you will make more of a margin from online sales.
The database of online products included images alongside product pricing.
Dixons had a digital image studio that produced pictures for advertisements, and the company had the foresight to store and index the images in a digital media archive. This meant that it was able to populate the Web site with them relatively easily. Consequently, he says that the group only needs three people to maintain the site.
"All of the information goes through the database and that drives the other aspects of the business," he explains. "The price you see on the Internet site is the price that you see in the store on tickets and so on." Making sure that the central Web database is also the one that drives the business enables the company to update everything with a single change.
Although the size of an operation can make it difficult to scale a site, Nevis argues that Dixons' size gave it the ability to pile as much technical resource into the system as it needed. "We had a 64Kb line, but we replaced it quickly with a 1Mb link, and now a 2Mb one," he says. This has been driven by an increase in the volume of orders on the site since it started two years ago, he says, adding that the increased investment in the Web site has to be reactive, based on the return on investment from the site.
Profitability depends on more than just technical specification, he says, highlighting a need for close communication between the technical and business departments when it comes to Web site management. The company will increase the capacity of the servers to match the increased data throughput to the ISP.
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