Web storefronts and electronic Customer Relationship Management have unique infrastructure requirements.
BY JOHN GUBERNAT
Many traditional or "brick-and-mortar" retailers and suppliers have successful Web storefronts or e-commerce sites, making them "bricks and clicks." Many of these retailers have learned how to successfully tackle the significant e-CRM (electronic Customer Relationship Management) infrastructure challenges of application functionality, data integration, scalability, 24x7 availability, and delivery of a predictable customer experience-issues easily overlooked initially.
This article looks at some of the success factors involved in building a high-volume, high-availability storage infrastructure that keeps pace with today's rapidly changing customer numbers and market conditions.
The task of building an entirely new operation such as a Web storefront or e-CRM system from the ground up is daunting. Online customer traffic has the potential to overwhelm inadequately planned infrastructures, which potentially threatens the customer service and loyalty objectives that Web storefronts are designed to address. And, despite the dot-com fall-out, traditional retailers face fierce competition from dot-com businesses singularly focused on delivering the ultimate Internet shopping experience.
In addition, traditional competitors are no longer standing on the sidelines watching; they are mounting their own e-commerce initiatives.
In order to succeed, these "brick-and-click" companies must
- Determine how to best implement the Web storefront;
- Assemble and manage diverse e-CRM components;
- Ensure a strong storage infrastructure;
- Plan for the system life cycle; and
- Monitor technical and business performance.
Opening the store
In today's competitive e-business environment, all companies want to deliver high-quality service and customer support on a 24x7 basis, along with same-day shipping and next-day product delivery. Providing this level of customer service means integrating the e-business environment with other customer touch points, including call centers, order by mail, and in-person ordering.
To provide this Internet shopping experience, companies must honestly evaluate their strengths and expertise in building and managing the infrastructure required. Do they have the staff and ability to quickly assemble the new Website and related e-CRM systems and storage infrastructure? Financing is another important factor: Does the company have the budget to purchase the system as a capital expenditure, or does outsourcing make more sense (with expenditures treated as an ongoing business expense)?
Outsourcing, or turning to third-party service providers, offers technical and management know-how, along with the systems for both database management, e-mail, Internet development and deployment, Web hosting, and data storage. The service provider staff supports the hosted e-CRM Website, thereby eliminating the need to hire difficult-to-obtain technical talent and resources.
Servers are port-attached to disk arrays through two separate SCSI channels.
By definition, e-CRM infrastructures are built using technologies and systems from different suppliers. Thus, in selecting e-CRM providers, you should verify they have worked together successfully in the past and that they can supply blueprints of the system to be built. Such blueprints enable the new e-merchant to build its infrastructure based on previously defined blueprints provided by a set of vendors with a history of successfully working together. These blueprints should document best practices based on previous collaboration between the vendors.
To further ensure the multiple e-CRM systems work together smoothly, applications and infrastructure providers must take the lead in their respective areas. Testing of all systems using production data is critical to ensure there are no integration issues. This practice minimizes risk from unknown events and protects against inadvertent problems introduced by the pressures of new application functionality deployment on Internet development schedules.
Ride the life cycle
A successful e-CRM application typically consists of three phases-implementation, production, and growth. Specific milestones in a 12-month project timeline might include
- Business practice evaluation and new business model planning;
- Vendor evaluation and selection;
- Application and infrastructure design;
- Integration testing and debugging;
- Site "live;" and
- Site functionality enhancements.
In implementation, the development team considers key issues such as time-to-market, initial application functionality, management of scarce resources, deployment of the initial application, and expectation management.
In the initial phase, the system must accomplish the basics of e-commerce. The storefront application must capture the order request along with shipping and payment information, then forward the order to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) application, which in turn notifies the e-mail system to send a confirming e-mail to the customer.
In the second phase, new application functionality enables the retailer to automatically notify a customer by e-mail when the product ships, showing an order-specific URL so customers can click on the shipping status directly on the shipper's Website. All customer, purchase, and shipment information for each order is stored in the database. The retailer uses this data for e-marketing activities such as digital coupons that are e-mailed to customers to entice them into add-on purchases.
In the production phase, when the site is "live," the revenue-producing applications need to be managed for maximum uptime and minimum risk of disruption. This requires non-disruptive backups, disaster recovery and restart, and ongoing application improvements with no impact on the production environment. In the growth phase, with all the above in place, new e-CRM applications and functionality can be added, and the infrastructure can be scaled to accommodate growth.
A typical e-CRM environment would include application and database servers, networking products, and enterprise storage. Consider an example based on a regional pharmacy retail chain. This retailer chose iStore Web development and deployment software, application servers and ERP software from Oracle, along with e-mail software from Kana Corp., networking products from Cisco, Web and database servers from Sun, and storage and software from EMC.
The goal of this Web storefront is a high-availability, fault-tolerant e-CRM network-server-storage architecture. The retailer's hosted Website operations were organized around mirrored components of the disk arrays. They were designed for easy expansion and simplified management and for a provider to offer aggressive service-level guarantees.
In this example, all data storage is external to the servers on two disk arrays, with all servers booted from a dedicated array. This procedure eliminates an internal disk, which can be a frequent cause of server hardware failure. Initially, 1TB of usable storage was required to support 10,000 users and to enable future growth.
A disk array containing 96 18GB drives holds the Oracle database, Web, and application servers, with each of the physical drives separated into two 9GB "splits." Each logical storage volume available to the database, Web, and application servers is built on three of these 9GB building blocks. The first two provide high availability through RAID-1 mirroring, and the third volume-also a mirror-can be alternatively synchronized and split off (using TimeFinder software). The third mirror serves as a business continuance volume (BCV). After splitting it off, the company can then perform administrative tasks on the BCV copy of the databases while the Oracle iStore production system continues to run, unaffected. When these tasks are completed, the BCV synchronizes with the production volumes and becomes a hot standby disaster-recovery resource.
The disk array is connected to the company's database, Web, and application servers-each with two I/O channels. Each logical volume on the array is accessible from both of these channels. PowerPath software runs on each server, balances the I/O across the multiple channels for scalability, detects any failure of an I/O channel, and transparently reroutes the I/O to the surviving channels to maintain high availability.
This e-CRM infrastructure results in
- Non-intrusive online backups;
- Reduced risk by testing applications with production databases;
- Instant recovery from database corruption incidents; and
- Automatic error-detection, fail-over, and rerouting of I/O to a predefined alternative data path.
With data stored in one application database, it automatically can be backed up nightly, while the application remains available and processing transactions. For recovery from host failures, the technology infrastructure can be configured in a mirrored, dual-component, hot-standby configuration with the application software in high-availability mode. Once the application detects it can no longer connect to the primary host, all subsequent connections are directed to the secondary host.
By following this path to an e-CRM solution, many more "brick-and-mortar" firms can experience significant growth in customer numbers and revenues in the growing Internet marketplace and implement new marketing and merchandising strategies.
John Gubernat is manager, Enterprise Business Applications Group, Industry and Applications Marketing, at EMC Corp. (www.emc.com) in Hopkinton, MA.
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