Intranets: The price of popularity

Wednesday Mar 3rd 1999 by Alan R. Earls
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Coping with intranet growth is no easy task. But with proper planning and the right tools, support for large numbers of users and integration of legacy applications can be achieved.

Picture this: You are the senior manager of the Web program office at one of the nation's leading aerospace companies, and your firm has just merged with another key player in this highly competitive industry. You are now entering the twilight zone.

boeing_logo

That's exactly where Graeber Jordan found himself on August 4, 1997, the day The Boeing Co. merged with McDonnell Douglas Corp. He also quickly found himself in the middle of a huge intranet integration project. Because of the merger, Boeing now has intranet connections for more than 192,000 individuals, including many on the production floor, out of a total employee roster of 234,000.


Excepting those shop floor workers who may never need or use the intranet, Jordan estimates more than 90% of the company's employees have access and use the capability today.

Indeed, intranets have become a necessity. They are the new Superglue holding organizations together and making them flourish. But intranet success has its price. IT managers are finding they must navigate with care--and expect the unexpected--when they burden existing infrastructure with new and insistent demand from a much wider base of users than ever before, not to mention when they plan to access data from any number of legacy systems. However, with good planning and the application of the right tools it's possible to domesticate this wild beast.

AT A GLANCE:


The Boeing Co.

The Company: Headquartered in Seattle, Boeing is the largest aerospace company in the world--as measured by total sales--and the nation's leading exporter. Boeing is the world's largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, and the nation' s largest NASA contractor. The company had 1997 revenues of $45.8 billion.

The problem: How to integrate Boeing and its recently acquired McDonnell Douglas units and improve productivity across the company.

The solution: Develop and implement a robust, multifunction intranet.

IT infrastructure: Mixture of legacy mainframes and client/server systems, mostly in Seattle and St. Louis.

Pioneer spirit

Seattle-based Boeing designs and manufactures a wide range of commercial and military aircraft and spacecraft at locations in the United States, such as St. Louis, and at various sites in California, Europe, and Japan. The company has also been a pioneer in the application of a number of IT technologies, including CAD/CAM.

Pioneering continued with the early implementation of an intranet back in September of 1995. And Jordan was right in the thick of things. He went down the road of intranet integration, faced the monster with plan in hand, and helped to build one of the largest and most robust intranets in the world. Supporting a large-scale intranet, in Boeing's case one with at least one million accessible pages and 2,300 major Web sites, requires some 1,000 servers. So during the construction phase, planning and experience did count.

According to Jordan, Boeing has been working with the Internet since the early 1970s (when it was the Department of Defense ARPAnet). The company set up a study group in late 1994 and early 1995 that looked at business applications for Web technology. Its most significant step was setting two policies. First, Boeing decided that the Web would become the primary vehicle for communicating within the company. Second, the company determined that everyone should have equal access to the Web--it would not become a bastion of privilege. "For the time that was quite forward-looking," says Jordan.

With those policies in place, Boeing's intranet was launched with 4,000 users. Growth was fast and furious, averaging 1,000 users a week. And use it they did. With the intranet, for instance, employees worldwide now had access to video for training, internal communications, meetings (video conferencing), etc., at a mouse click. The savings in videotape replication alone amount to over $1 million a year.

Fortunately, notes Jordan, bandwidth was never an issue. Boeing's intranet only absorbs about 10% of its total network bandwidth. The company is currently moving from a shared environment to a switched environment, and it uses fiber to the closet and fiber to the desktop when necessary. Jordan cites the company's experience with packet switching Internet technology and the fact that the internal network was already built to be tough enough to handle engineering uses associated with building complex and large-scale systems, often with 3D solid modeling. "I myself normally use 10MB per second Ethernet, but if I need 100MB per second that's no problem," says Jordan, since a fiber backbone goes to every floor of every building.

Coming together

Bringing legacy systems and the intranet together was a different story, though. Jordan says the company still is a heavy user of mainframes and has transitioned access to those resources on an application-by-application basis. "We haven't used any one technique" to provide access to legacy systems, he says. For instance, to access one set of mainframe data IS built an Oracle server as a front-end. In other cases, they simply deployed "screen scrapers"--browser-based 3270 terminal emulators. "We looked at what the applications were and what the database looked like, and tried to figure out the most efficient way of hooking them up," he continues. Basically, Boeing was looking for "the easiest way and the cheapest way to make legacy data viewable with a Web browser," he says, "taking into account the architecture of each application."


Lessons learned about scaling intranets

Keeping an intranet from devastating IT resources takes planning and a readiness to respond to the unexpected.

Recognize weak links. At the Boeing Co., the day that McDonnell Douglas employees got connected to the Boeing intranet, the top-level boeing.com site "was brought to its knees" by the number of mouse clicks and had to be rehosted on a more robust server.

Set expectations. Terrie Bousquin, director of the judicial information system for the New Mexico Supreme Court system, notes that once users get a taste of the intranet they "come up with ideas faster than we can deploy them."

Solving problems is easy, defining problems is hard. At Partners Healthcare, the biggest intranet challenge is integrating the affiliation of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and North Shore Medical Center. Ethan Fener, corporate manager for information systems at Partners, says the next step in rolling out intranet functionality will be harnessing the intranet to IT needs--using it as a sophisticated tool for monitoring and maintaining diverse and geographically separate hardware and software. This will help ensure that the whole IT environment is better understood before further functional expansion.

Don't guess, test. Paul Roach, with Northern Telecom Limited in Richardson, Texas, is the senior quality assurance specialist at the company. He says that server crashes caused by excessive user demand are the number one intranet bugaboo. "Whatever the real world is, the intranet must be able to stand up to it," he says. That's where testing tools provide an edge.



Testing may be the key

As corporate Web sites for the Internet and intranet become more and more data-intensive and mission-critical, vendors have responded with a wide range of testing and modeling products to help you anticipate demand scenarios and prevent problems. Most of the vendors cut their teeth in the client/server arena but there are some new faces...

Compuware Corp., Farmington Hills, Mich., is a respected middleware player. The company recently announced extended support for SAP R/3, Tuxedo middleware transactions, Windows socket traffic, and HTTPS (Secured Sockets Layer) in the latest release of its QALoad product--Compuware's performance testing solution for server-based applications and databases. The new support complements existing load-testing support for major database environments, Telnet, and Web-based applications. More information is available at http://www.compuware.com.

Mercury Interactive Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif., is known for offering a comprehensive line of automated enterprise tools that address the full range of quality needs for testing clients/server, e-business, Year 2000, Euro, and packaged applications. LoadRunner is a load-testing tool that predicts system behavior and performance. It exercises an entire enterprise infrastructure by emulating thousands of users to isolate problems, optimize performance, and accelerate deployment. The company's other e-business testing products include TestDirector, WinRunner, and the Astra product family. More information is available at http://www.merc-int.com.

Mindcraft Inc., Palo Alto, an independent testing lab, provides WebStone Web site testing software, now in version 2.5, as freeware. For information go to http://www.mindcraft.com.

RadView Software Inc., Lexington, Mass., specializes in software tools for performance testing and analysis, and targets the Internet/Web applications market. Its WebLoad product is used for testing the performance of e-commerce applications under various user loads. WebLoad customers are able to generate an unlimited number of virtual users accessing a Web site concurrently. While the Web site is being load tested, probing clients can reside anywhere on the Internet/intranet, and probe the user response time under different work conditions. Performance and Load reports can be customized and viewed in real-time while the tests are running. More information is available at http://www.radview.com.

Rational Software Corp., Cupertino, Calif., provides products that span the activities of requirements management, visual modeling, testing, and configuration and change management. PerformanceStudio is the company's Web-based, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and multitier performance testing solution. It helps record test data, simulate usage patterns, model multi-user scenarios, and analyze tests to enable IT organizations to effectively integrate performance testing into software development and deployment processes. For more information, visit Rational's Web site at http://www.rational.com.

RSW Software Inc., Watertown, Mass., a division of Teradyne Inc., develops automated testing tools for e-business applications. Its e-Test Suite has been designed to address the unique needs of Internet application developers and quality assurance professionals with a seamlessly integrated, development-through-deployment solution to Web testing. More information is available at http://rswsoftware.com.

Segue Software Inc., Lexington, Mass., offers solutions designed to mimic real-world scenarios. Scenario testing is the process of creating a series of scenarios that model an event occurring as an effect of three factors: the rate of change (includes content and functionality change introduced by sudden competitive pressures); the mix of platforms, tiers, and technologies an application must traverse; and the volume and fluctuation of user activity. Segue's LiveQuality solution simulates this real-world situation in a safe test environment, providing insight on potential problems before the system goes live. Segue also offers a product called SilkPerformer. More information is available at http://www.segue.com. --Alan Earls




"We've had a few interim capacity problems, but the only really serious glitch was when we connected McDonnell Douglas people on the fourth of Aug. 1997."

-Graeber Jordan, The Boeing Co.

And that case-by-case method of riding the intranet tiger has, for the most part, worked. "We've had a few interim capacity problems, but the only really serious glitch was when we connected McDonnell Douglas people on the fourth of Aug. 1997," says Jordan. The existing Boeing intranet users and the 55,000 McDonnell Douglas users added to the intranet were like two gangs of kids invading a candy store. Employees from both halves of the merged company spent several days in a free-for-all, looking "under the covers" at the inner workings of their former rival.

To deal with the flood, Jordan says, a few sites had to be rehosted and others made temporarily less accessible. Once the two companies successfully merged though, demands on system resources returned to expected proportions.

When it came to Boeing's ERP system, Jordan says the company recently requested that Baan Co. N.V., its supplier, provide an updated version with a Web portal. "We wanted everything to be accessible through the Web browser," he adds. Baan is not alone in responding to the intranet.

A common platform

The desire to make the browser the standard corporate interface for both new and legacy systems seems to be driving intranet growth in most organizations. Sandy Taylor, director of analyst services at Software Productivity Group (SPG), in Natick, Mass., notes that corporations used to have to jump through hoops to build worldwide applications. With all the specialized middleware that was required, she says, "it was like having a root canal." Add in the complex maintenance requirements and it became a form of permanent torture. "The common TCP/IP protocol gives companies a common platform they never had before," says Taylor.

A majority of companies (46%) are currently using intranets to manage networks and systems, and many others (30%) are either planning or investigating its use for management.


That was, in part, the experience when the Supreme Court system of New Mexico faced the need to make reams of court documents, cases, and aggregate data available on an intranet (and eventually to the general public over the Internet). The court tackled its problems with the help of a Prolifics three-tier development environment. Mike Copley, assistant director of IT for the New Mexico Supreme Court, says the product provides both security and links between application servers and transaction servers.

Although the court system did not have a traditional legacy system, it did have a recently completed, client/server-based case management system. But building the intranet "increased the expectations beyond anything anyone had anticipated," admits Terrie Bousquin, director of the judicial information division, Supreme Court of New Mexico. Fortunately, she and her team, including Copley, took a phased approach. An infrastructure consisting of 70 IBM RS-6000s was built with the intranet in mind. "We started with the local case management system then expanded from there to include the whole intranet and now the general public through the Web," she says.

Intranet-database connection

At Partners Healthcare in Boston a similar phased approach is being used in the construction of an intranet that spans several large healthcare organizations, including sprawling Massachusetts General Hospital. Again, access to database resources provided critical.

The first component that went live is an intranet application that provides an electronic resource/locator directory for some 22,000 desktops and is easily accessible through Web browsers. The application was subsequently enhanced by adding paging capabilities, ensuring that up-to-the minute information on the location of any physician at all times--as well as the physician's availability--is easily accessible. The Intranet application also includes e-mail, multiple feeds from hospital operators, Interactive Voice Response, and Web access.

Ethan Fener, corporate manager for information systems at Partners, says the project might have fizzled if the company had relied on MUMPS-based legacy databases running on a variety of minicomputers. Using MUMPS, a programming system developed originally at Massachusetts General Hospital for healthcare applications, just couldn't provide the reliability or response time that the paging and directory system demanded. "This is something where seconds count," says Fener.

Fener notes Partners ended up selecting Caché, made by InterSystems Corp., in Cambridge-Mass., which is billed by the vendor as a "post relational database." Using Caché to migrate legacy MUMPS data, he says, has provided paging response times that are typically in the neighborhood of 10 seconds.



Making the intranet-database connection can be one of the larger intranet-building challenges. Indeed, Carl Olofson, research director for database management at market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC), in Framingham, Mass., says that the intranet/thin client model is being embraced by many of the database vendors (not just Baan). But for data intensive applications, he warns, it can still be necessary to fortify the connection to the end user with a dedicated application server.

The right tool

Still, it's hard to know sometimes which system resources will become the weak link when setting up an intranet. And that's where testing comes in (see sidebar below, "Testing may be the key"). Paul Roach, a senior quality assurance specialist at Northern Telecom Limited in Richardson, Texas, helped develop various functions within Northern Telecom's global intranet. Roach says, "when you have all kinds of different applications that are deployed across a global intranet you need to be able to test the Web servers and the applications." That need was what moved his group forward in finding tools that could do the job and that had the scalability and a feature set robust enough to handle the multitude of technologies found on the intranet.

A timeline of recent intranet-related announcements

March 11, 1997: Astra SiteTest was made generally available by Mercury Interactive Corp, of Sunnyvale, Calif. Astra SiteTest makes Web site testing simple and affordable by enabling organizations to stress-test a Web site using a single Windows NT workstation.

June 29, 1998: Mercury Interactive unveiled a functional testing version of its popular line of Astra Web-based products. Astra QuickTest, the first icon-based functional testing tool for e-business applications, simplifies and automates the entire Web and e-business testing process, making testing "as easy as using a browser."

April 21, 1998: Segue Software Inc. launched LiveQuality. This solution supports the diverse range of e-business systems' user and developer roles; operates with a wide variety of platforms and technologies; and customizes to meet customer demand. LiveQuality is comprised of a real-world scenario testing component--LiveQuality Realizer; the industry leading Web testing capabilities of its Silk product line--LiveQuality Producer; and a packaged consulting component--LiveQuality Delivery. LiveQuality is targeted specifically toward high-volume transaction, service-oriented organizations where system reliability is the lifeblood of the business.

Oct. 5, 1998: Segue Software Inc. launched LiveQuality Foundation, the scenario testing platform that provides comprehensive, system-level testing for all e-business applications. LiveQuality Foundation combines the scenario testing methodology recently delivered in the LiveQuality Solution, with Segue's industry standard Silk technologies to create a base system for managing e-business system reliability.

Oct. 27, 1998: Rational Software Corp. announced Rational TeamTest 7, the latest version of its award-winning functional testing solution. Rational TeamTest 7 provides new capabilities for Web and e-commerce testing, iterative test management against project requirements, and a new level of integration with Rational's best-in-class products across the application lifecycle.

Dec. 7, 1998: RadView Software Inc. introduced WebLoad 3.0, a comprehensive solution for testing the performance and robustness of Web applications. WebLoad 3.0 provides developers and IT resources with the necessary tools to ensure the scalability of Web applications, including Internet, intranet, and e-business.

In one instance, Roach helped deploy an employee satisfaction survey that would be accessible by 70,000 employees worldwide. Other sites that required testing included functions as diverse as financial accounting, sales, and marketing, he notes. "You name it, we were involved in it," he says. Roach and Northern Telecom ended up selecting Performance Studio from Rational Software, one of several competing testing systems now on the market.

Finding the right product or tool can be crucial to getting an intranet launched and keeping it running. Fortunately, a lot of the learning--and tools--from client/server is transferable to the intranet, says SPG's Taylor. For instance, vendors such as Segue, Rational, and Mercury Interactive all have testing tools that can predict bandwidth bottlenecks and, perhaps more importantly, help plot out usage scenarios that could bury mission-critical applications. In fact, she notes, many of the issues faced in rolling out client/server are similar to those now being faced in intranet development.

Other analysts agree that Web testing is a good place to invest money. When intranets were simply a collection of one-way, static pages, "failure was an annoyance but not business critical," says Dick Heiman, an analyst with IDC. But, he notes, those days are gone forever. //


About the author:

Alan Earls is a technology writer based in Franklin, Mass.



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