Mission Critical Web Sites

On January 5, Greg’s brother, Jeff, made a second attempt at flying into snowy Chicago from San Francisco. Three days earlier, a winter storm in Chicago produced nearly two feet of snow and 50 m.p.h. winds — canceling nearly all flights into the city and stranding countless holiday travelers for days.

Having learned the hard lesson after his first 80-mile round-trip to and from the airport for a cancelled flight, Jeff called ahead to check on his flight status. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only stranded traveler who did so. His airline — Indianapolis-based American Trans Air (ATA) — was overwhelmed by the call volume from stranded travelers, resulting in endless busy signals.

With no time to spare before takeoff, Jeff drove to the airport anyway — only to discover that his rescheduled flight had also been cancelled. Expressing his frustrations to the ATA staff at the airport, he was told with a helpful smile, “You should have used our web site!”

This would have been a great answer if only Jeff had home Internet access.

“Press ‘1’ if you have a rotary phone.”

This is the first legitimate case we’ve heard of a traditional business discriminating against customers without Internet access. While it’s not a particularly blatant case, we expect to find more — and more obvious — examples in the future. (In fact, just as we finished writing this article, Delta Airlines added a 2 percent surcharge to all tickets not purchased through its web site.)

Someday, not having Internet access might put you in the same class as consumers who use rotary phones.

Viewed from a different perspective, the extent of this discrimination will indicate how mission critical the company web site has become. The more your customers depend on your web site, the more you will also depend on it.

Therein lies a quandary. With the rapidly evolving importance of the company web site, what was once a novelty marketing tool now hosts mission critical applications and services. Your customers are no longer curiosity seekers; instead they expect — even demand — flawless performance and 24/7 uptime from your site.

What can you do to help ensure the smooth and reliable operation of what is becoming an indispensable strategic tool for marketing, sales, communication, and/or customer support?

Jiffy PoP (as in “Point of Presence”)

If you host your web site on the same electrical circuit as the office microwave oven, you don’t want to be crossing your fingers every time a co-worker makes popcorn. And if you outsource your web site to the local garage-based ISP down the street, you should start crossing your fingers whenever they make the popcorn.

If you want to sleep better at night, you could give away large gift tubs of pre-popped popcorn. Or, you could outsource your web site to a premier co-location provider — such as GTE Internetworking, Exodus, Frontier Globalcenter, or AboveNet.

More than a national ISP or big name web hosting service, these service providers specialize at managing floor space in a shared data center and managing bandwidth needs to accommodate your Internet traffic growth (although arguably very few vendors excel at both). You supply the computer hardware, and they can take care of the rest.

“Johnny, tell our lovely contestants what they’ve won.”

Like other ISPs and web hosting services, co-location providers offer 24/7 service and support in common. However, they additionally offer many of the following services:

 

  • redundant power and bandwidth supplies
  • ample bandwidth, plus burstability to handle significant traffic surges
  • extensive backup power and fire suppression
  • data-center-quality floor space for growth
  • detailed monitoring of your web site’s health
  • secure facilities (complete with the online equivalent of bulletproof glass and armed guards)
  • direct access to additional hardware, spares, or other resources needed on a just-in-time basis
  • peering relationships with key Internet backbone providers for high-performance connectivity between your site and the rest of the Internet
  • hosting and support of your web servers in multiple geographic locations, including overseas
  • high-performance connectivity between multiple company sites (e.g., intranets) and/or your Internet affiliates (e.g., extranets)
Hands-Off Security
Some co-location providers will go to the extremes to provide service. In addition to bulletproof glass and armed guards, Exodus offers handprint recognition technology to secure and track access to your reinforced steel server cages. Not only will the access log hold up in a court of law, but the handprint recognition software also checks for a live pulse — ensuring that the authorized hand was not severed from its owner.

Among these benefits, probably the best reasons to choose a co-location provider include power and bandwidth redundancy and the ability to leverage the provider’s private peering relationships.

These features would be prohibitively expensive to support entirely on your own. Hence co-locating your web site is a lot like buying insurance: You’re leveraging the shared facilities and network assets of a much larger collective that’s managed by a separate, for-profit company.

“Please don’t take my babies.”

Sure, there are a few pitfalls. Choosing a co-location provider may be the most difficult technical decision you will ever make. While virtually all of these providers offer what is called “remote hands,” or a basic service contract that provides for the remote administration of your servers, your company IT wonk is probably very attached to your servers and will suffer a great deal of postpartum depression and anxiety. (We highly recommend hiding any nearby cutlery and making the most of available over-the-counter medications.)

Expect a steep price tag too. This is true even after the typical back-and-forth price haggling that you’d normally associate with a car salesman. (And yes, no joke, even the special “Let me speak with my manager” option is almost always included.)

But if your web site is going to lead your business into its 24/7 e-commerce future, you don’t want to get caught trying to run it off your Chevy’s cigarette lighter in a pinch. Growth, security, performance, and reliability should be words to describe both your business and its Internet presence.

“Hey — is this thing on?”

Greg should know. He was in the process of choosing such a co-location provider on December 8 of last year when an employee of the local power company accidentally forgot to remove a short circuit upon completion of an assignment, shutting down a massive power grid and putting the entire city of San Francisco and parts of the Bay Area in a blackout.

With city codes in the neighborhood prohibiting the storage of more than 10 gallons of fuel, a web site with millions of visitors went off the air for what seemed like countless hours until a previously-contracted generator arrived on the scene.

Insurance can cover much of the resulting equipment and productivity losses, but the effect on your company’s reputation can last much longer.

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