Last November, shortly after Toys "R" Us mailed out 62 million catalogs to customers and offered everyone free shipping on its Web site, ToysRUs.com slowed to a crawl-leaving thousands of would-be buyers without access during peak hours. SecureTax.com faced an even graver situation when its site, used by hundreds of thousands of customers for preparing and filing taxes, crashed outright. Even eBay, the Net's leading auctioneer, with more than three million users in 50 countries, experienced at least four major crashes this past year due to a corrupted server and various and sundry software troubles. In one instance, eBay had to shut down its site for nearly 22 hours, incurring between $3 million and $5 million in losses.
Are you scared yet? You should be. As Internet commerce continues to surge in popularity, so does the potential for technical problems-and don't think you're immune just because you operate a small business. Although most of the crashes you hear about happen to giant corporations, small businesses also regularly experience shutdowns and blackouts costing thousands-sometimes millions-of dollars. Such site crashes and failures happen for a variety of reasons: errors in programming, seemingly innocuous software glitches, the failure of servers, both in-house and at Web hosting companies-even human error.
Businesses using Web hosting companies often run into problems because they end up in a shared-server environment, meaning their Web site is being hosted on a server shared with one or more other Web sites. "The customer may be doing all the right things," explains Preston Dodd, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm in New York City. "But another customer, who is growing and who shouldn't be in a shared-server environment any longer, may overload that server and thereby hinder the performance of the [other] customers."
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New
York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing &
Communications and Sales & Marketing Management
magazines. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How can you be sure your Web site is safe from crashes? While it's impossible to be 100 percent safe, you can get as close as 95 percent if you make sure you're using a reliable hosting company prepared to handle server problems.
That's what Online Office Supplies Co. in Frederick, Maryland, did. The 80-person online superstore, founded in 1998 by Paula Jagemann, currently has more than 30,000 office supplies for sale on the site and even allows other brand-name Web sites to sell their merchandise through the Online Office Supplies Co. web site. Before going online, however, Jagemann signed on with one of the largest and most-renowned Web hosting companies in the business, UUNET Technologies, to handle all its hosting needs. "We went with UUNET because we didn't want to suffer the outages that cripple embryonic e-commerce sites," says Jagemann, 33. "At the end of the day, success can be a Web site's worst enemy if it's not planned for appropriately." Jagemann's site resides on UUNET's servers in a hosting facility in Washington, DC, and UUNET has a team of engineers dedicated to monitoring it at all times.
Jagemann says she went with the maximum service possible for her site, which receives more than one million hits per month, just to make sure service would be stellar. "I was planning on spending four figures, and I'm in five," she explains. But so far, according to Jagemann, the hefty sum of money has paid off: "We've had periodic outages, but we've compared notes with other Web sites and found our outages pale in comparison. Most of the outages have been regionally centric, caused by hurricanes or natural disasters, as opposed to just our box going out."
She also says that deciding on UUNET was important from a standpoint of scalability. "When we developed the actual software for the Web site, the parameter was that on Day One, the site would be able to take 100,000 orders per day," says Jagemann. "We worked very closely with UUNET as we were designing the software, so they knew our expectations. And we knew they would be able to handle this."
Many small businesses find their Web sites crash because they're not designed with the technology necessary to handle increases in traffic over time. UUNET, however, owns almost half the Net's backbone and recently invested $100 million in data centers. This expansion allows it to have a great amount of Internet piping, plus additional connectivity to the Internet backbone in many places-making it easier for businesses to gain entrance to the site.
The Right Service
For Jagemann and company, service was key. To get it, she went to one of the major companies for her Web hosting needs. But UUNET isn't the only choice. PSInet is another leading Web hosting company that offers similar hosting capabilities. Combined, these two companies handle the majority of the hosting for Web sites in the United States and are generally considered the best in the field. However, these larger providers can be costly; basic shared-server pricing begins at $300 to $600 per month, as opposed to the $25 to $200 range you may be paying now. Dedicated hosting, which means the hosting company dedicates an entire server to one company, costs about $1,500 per month.
Some Internet companies, such as TALPX Inc., can afford to pay such prices (and reap the rewards): Besides being scalable, large hosting companies feature uninterruptable power supplies and generator backups. If power outages do occur because of weather emergencies, these companies can still keep their customers' Web sites up and running.
If you don't want or can't afford to pay such hefty fees, you can still find some level of security by using a reputable Web hosting company, one that's less expensive and not quite so robust yet still offers the kind of customer service support you need and want. To find other companies, try the Web Host Guild, an organization of more than 60 Web hosting companies that have been certified to offer the highest-quality Web-hosting services possible.
In order to become a certified member, the Web hosting companies-which come in all sizes-are required to create incremental backups every 24 hours in addition to full backups weekly. They must also have a Web page allowing customers to check the status of the company's network. Simply scan the Web Host Guild for members-some offer services for as low as $25 per month.
Before you sign up with a company, make sure to ask some important questions: Will my Web site be deployed on two servers, so if one server crashes, all the traffic will be routed to the other server? Will I be in a shared-server environment? If so, with how many other companies will I be sharing server space? Will my Web site be monitored every day? How will it be monitored, and how often? How often do you experience crashes? What is your contingency plan if there is a problem?
Despite the many safeguards a Web hosting company can provide, according to Dodd, it's still the responsibility of the owner of the Web site to make sure the site doesn't crash. "First and foremost, you should empower yourself as much as possible to understand what's realistically supported within the server environment that you've set up with your hosting company, as well as your hosting company's philosophy on shared-server environments," he says.
Dodd also recommends having a service-level agreement in place indicating the level of restitution the owner of a Web site can expect in the event the site crashes because your hosting company acted recklessly in the number of sites it hosted in a single shared-server environment.
Whichever hosting company you eventually decide on, you should always concern yourself with minimizing site outages. Keep in mind your Web site is where your customers experience your brand (sometimes for the first time). If your Web site is unreliable, it shows your brand may be, too.