Retooling your Web site

Wednesday Dec 1st 1999 by David Strom
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Here's what you need to know when it comes to managing both your internal and external sites and keeping track of their reliability


No matter how you calculate "Web years" in 1999, the World Wide Web has matured with a variety of new technologies, tools, and techniques. Gone are the simple days of the mid-1990s when Webmasters could be concerned with one or two programs such as a Web server and scripting and authoring tools.

Today's Web is more complex, and its underlying infrastructure is more involved. Web software comes with more options and choices. Sites now are all about retaining visitors with value-added services and improving network latency and site reliability. This is a very different situation from the good old days of the Web (say 1995), where most Webmasters and site operators were concerned about putting together good-looking HTML pages or offering ways to capture a visitor's attention with animated graphics and interesting backgrounds.

The recent sophistication of the Web is both a blessing and a curse. New technologies such as caching, load balancing, and network monitoring and management will take some time and effort to figure out. It also will take time to understand what works best for your particular situation. For example, if you are running a site with multiple Web servers located in different locations, your management needs will be more challenging than if your data center is under one roof.

Site monitoring

The world of Web server management takes in a fairly wide swatch of technologies. It also helps you--as a Webmaster or a CIO--accomplish several different tasks:

  • Ensuring that all aspects of your site are operating 24/7, or as close to continuous operations available to the Internet as you can afford.
  • Knowing what others, such as your competitors or allies, are saying about you, your products, and your corporation across the public Internet.
  • Ensuring that your site can be viewed by the widest possible collection of browsers and environments.
  • Ensuring that your site can deliver consistent performance, especially during peak-load periods.
In order to accomplish these tasks, you'll need several different tools and you'll need to examine the various components of your Web site carefully. First, your Web server and other associated servers such as database, directory, and e-mail servers, all need to be up and available to the Internet. This means monitoring the various services or programs that are running on these servers and making sure that none has crashed or terminated unexpectedly. This also means understanding your overall Web content and how this content depends on each of these services. For example, your Web storefront's catalog may depend on a database server to display current items and inventory. Or you may have a form that will e-mail Web site visitors a confirmation message that depends on e-mail services working properly, as well as on the program that processes the underlying scripting language that creates the form. You might need to be able to connect to your corporate directory to route an inquiry to the appropriate mailbox for follow-up. And your Web site may other tools and processes, all of which require their services to be operating, such as Allaire Corp.'s ColdFusion or database middleware tools.



There are several tools to help you monitor these tasks (see table, "Web management technologies"). If you are running NT servers, perhaps the best product is App Manager Suite from NetIQ Corp. This software product contains three components:

  • First, is a series of software agents to monitor the particular service of interest, whether this is an Exchange server, SQL Server, IIS, or general NT services

  • Second, there is a management console that keeps track of the agent and the service and sends alerts

  • Finally, there are additional modules to communicate with the alert system, ranging from alphanumeric pagers to more sophisticated network management frameworks such as Computer Associates Inc.'s Unicenter TNG or Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView.

    Additional products include Sitescope from Freshwater Software Inc., which has similar monitoring components but also runs on a few different UNIX platforms in addition to NT. A different sort of product is ServerSitter from FastFocus Systems Inc. This takes the form of a special add-in adapter card that sits inside your NT server and monitors it constantly to ensure that it is running reliably. When the card detects the server has crashed or certain critical services have failed, it sends a signal to reboot the machine. Given that NT can be unstable under certain circumstances, an investment in this product seems prudent.

    Site load balancing

    But these tools still don't cover the entire management picture. You also need to handle peak load traffic to your site, and be able to understand how to calculate and anticipate these peak loads properly and how they will affect your various servers and systems. Perhaps the most complete service for this situation is provided by a company called Manage.com, which will set up the appropriate servers, routers, and switches to ensure that your site will be able to satisfy the number of visitors and Web shoppers coming by, even at the busiest of times. The company has test tools to examine your Web storefront and monitor such things as response time, link integrity, and overall transaction throughput. While these services are expensive (typical prices are in the tens of thousands of dollars), if you are running an e-commerce site, you can't afford not to investigate them.

    Besides Manage.com, there are a number of vendors that offer Web switchgear and ways to balance loads across multiple servers. These products are useful when you have multiple Web servers that make up a single site and want to distribute your visitors across these servers in an intelligent way, such as sending the next visitor to the least busy server or sending secure transactions (like payment and order processing) to a particular set of servers. These products are from companies such as Alteon Web Systems Inc., Foundry Networks Inc., iPivot (now owned by Intel Corp).

    To make use of these products, though, requires a fairly heavy investment in network infrastructure, often replacing existing routers and hubs with these products to obtain the switching features and intelligent load balancing offered. For example, to handle the increased traffic, you may have to upgrade your network to 100Mb Ethernet or install a switched Ethernet network, both of which will require expensive changes to your wiring, routers, and hubs. Again, any of these products are an investment in the tens of thousands of dollars.

    Site scanning

    Once you have set up your management system and collected the appropriate series of tools, you aren't completely finished: You still want to keep track of what others around the Net are saying about you in public. This could involve tracking down mentions of your company's brand names, corporate officers, or products, as well as the names and product names of your competitors or partners.

    There are two different and free services that I use, called CompanySleuth from Infonautics Corp. and Peacefire.org's Tracerlock. Both scan a variety of data sources and Web sites and will send you periodic e-mail bulletins containing Web links that you can click on to obtain further information.




  • CompanySleuth is aimed more at tracking financial performance, and contains such things as when insiders trade their stocks, when various people post to the finance bulletin boards, and when any new corporate financial filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission happen. Tracerlock just scans lots of Web pages and looks for particular keywords. It is a good first-line notification of when someone has linked to your site, or mentioned your name or your company on their Web site. It isn't complete, it isn't perfect, but for the price and the minimal amount of time involved in setting it up, it offers tremendous value for tracking who is saying what about your company.

    Once you have your management act together, the next step is to examine your overall site performance and look at ways to decrease network latency to your visitors. I'll be back to talk about the evolving world of caching technologies and services available. //

    About the author:

    David Strom was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and has written over a thousand articles for dozens of computer trade publications. He publishes Web Informant, a weekly guide to new Web technologies, trends, and services and is a frequent speaker at industry events including Next Generation Networks and Networld+Interop. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

    Web-management technologies
    Product / Vendor Price Function
    App Manager Suite, NetIQ Corp. $2,500+ Windows software that monitors NT services only, but includes a wide range of support for Exchange, SQL Server, and connectors to management frameworks such as Tivoli, Unicenter TNG, and Open View.
    CompanySleuth from Infonautics Inc. free Net-based service that keeps track of stock prices and investor information on a series of target companies, and sends daily e-mail reports.
    Manage.Com varies Service provider that can manage the entire e-commerce path and processes.
    Serversitter, FastFocus Systems Inc. $349 Hardware card for NT, Windows 95/98 servers that will automatically reboot a hung server.
    Site Watch 2000 from NET Resolve/3net Communications Corp. varies Net-based service to monitor your site from dozens of different locations around the Net.
    Sitescope, and SiteSeer, Freshwater Software Inc. SiteScope, $495-$1,295 SiteScope is software that monitors NT and UNIX servers. SiteSeer is a Net-based service to keep track of particular servers and URLs. Both provide various kinds of notification.
    SiteSeer, Freshwater Software, $995-$3, 495/yr
    Tracerlock, from Peacefire.org free Net-based service that looks for mentions of keywords across the entire Web and sends daily e-mail reports with URLs.
    Uptime, from Phil Greenspun free Net-based service that keeps track of particular servers and URLs and sends notification via e-mail when unable to connect.
    WebPartner, from Vertical Software Inc. free Net-based service that keeps track of particular servers and URLs and sends notification via e-mail when unable to connect.
    WhatsUp Gold, from Ipswitch Inc. $695 Windows software that provides notification and monitors a range of devices, including hosts, servers, and hubs.




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