Web Watch Dogs | Article

programmer/ mapIt’s 4 a.m. Do you know if your Web site’s working?

If the Web site resides on a NaviSite server, you can leave the worrying to them. If one of its experienced trouble-shooters notices that something is not quite right with a Web server, the employee explores the problem and fixes it before it affects Web performance.

Graveyard shift Web users never received a 404 error message informing them the site was down. The owners of the Web site arrive at the office later that morning, learning about the problem only after it was fixed.

“This kind of service is very different from standard Web hosting, which typically is just providing power, pipe and ping,” says Pierre Bouchard, director of product marketing for NaviSite, an Application Service Provider (ASP) based in Andover, Massachusetts. “We are heavily engaged in trouble shooting,” adds Bouchard.

The company manages the Web resources required to make a Web site work. After learning a customer’s needs, NaviSite purchases the requisite software, installs the software in its data center, properly configures the software, then rents the application to the customer.

Once the Web site is up and running, NaviSite monitors the Web servers, data base and operating system. NaviSite’s customers rely on this complex monitoring system to ensure that their all important Web sites operate continuously.

The Four Nines

The company found that “pinging” a Web site, which checks the server to see if it is running, didn’t provide the detailed data it needed to ensure continuous performance. NaviSite needed to detect problems “at a higher level of granularity.”

The company also has an automated back up system in case the problems are not instantly fixable. “Our customers have a business model that depends on their Web sites running continuously. We operate in a ‘no excuses’ environment,” Bouchard says.

Bouchard says the company’s service level agreements (SLA) reflect this attitude. NaviSite operates at 99.99 percent availability, which it dubs “the four nines.” This SLA applies not only to its data center but to all its subcomponents. That translates into five minutes of down time each month. “One hundred percent uptime is unachievable,” says Bouchard.

The ASP also offers Web site availability in three nines – 99.9 percent. Site owners experience less than 45 minutes of down time a month.

NaviSite tries to avoid penalty situations. “We proactively compensate our customers for down time,” the executive explains. He knows his customers prefer to have their sites working. “No vendor wants to be compensated for an SLA,” he says..

In addition, NaviSite purchases its Internet connections from tier one suppliers like Sprint, who have their own SLAs. “We pass those on to our customers,” says Bouchard. Each of its data centers have three connections to the Internet so it has the flexibility to reroute traffic if one pipe becomes clogged.

The ASP has begun working with a load balancing technology from Arrowpoint. This technology detects where there might be a traffic bottleneck, and then fixes it if one does indeed exist.

Solving the Shopping Cart Problem

NaviSite discovered serendipitously this software solved a previous intractable shopping cart problem. Bouchard explains that sites using shopping carts try to gather as much information as possible about the user. These sites typically use multiple Web servers to protect against failure. However, that means one shopper is actually using multiple servers. When the shopper checks out, only a portion of their prospective purchases appears.

This apparent failure is not good for business. The consumer, who might be a bit wary shopping on the Net to start with, is now convinced the shopping cart doesn’t work. This “proves” their fears were correct and they refuse to buy. The Arrowpoint software can detect this situation and provide a server that allows all the purchases to show up at check-out time.

About 30 percent of NaviSite’s business comes from hosting other software companies or ASPs. NaviSite currently has 40 software companies delivering their applications from its data centers. The company’s four nines SLA is a big attraction for these companies who don’t have the resources to provide the monitoring required for the guaranteed up time.

The company opened its doors in February 1997. CMGI, the Internet incubator company, formed NaviSite as its internal IT department. CMGI realized it was reinventing the wheel every time it funded a new company and had to create a new IT environment. Its founders decided to create a hosting environment in-house. The mission was so successful, CMGI decided to spin it off as its own IPO.

Growing Exponentially

Today 90 percent of its customers are not CMGI funded companies. At the end of June, 2000 NaviSite had 283 hosting customers.

The company has enjoyed significant growth. In 1999 its gross revenues totaled $10.5 million. Yet in its third fiscal quarter, from April to June 2000, its revenues hit $14.5 million.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:

  • Web sites that rely on reliability need SLAs that guarantee maximum uptime.
  • Businesses whose existence depends on Web commerce must select an ASP that monitors problems and attempts to correct them before they lead to Web down time.
  • Software can help the shopping cart check-out problem when multiple servers are involved.


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