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Try Engineering Analysis to Simplify Your Web Work

"The best thing about the Internet," remarked Avi Shai of Largo Systems Design a circuit-board design firm, "is that every day is an adventure. The worst thing about the Internet, is that every day is an adventure."

Few areas of technology have grown faster than the Internet, and many engineering managers, like Shai, find themselves bewildered by a complex array of new products and services--and upper management's insistence that engineering managers help chart the company's Internet presence. After all, they are expected to be the company's masters of applying technology. To that end, I've found that it's possible to apply a veteran tool of engineering analysis-decomposition--to the problem. This way, you can break the complex problem into simpler components, thereby simplifying the continual process of designing and maintaining a corporate Web site.

To begin the process, consider dividing your firm's Internet presence into Web-site content development on one hand, and Web-site hosting and Internet access on the other. Although we often look favorably at the integration of hardware, software and services, the Internet's standardization across hardware platforms has made Web-site hosting and Internet access a commodity.

Web-site development, like custom-software development, is the opposite. With 45 million Internet dial-up accounts all conforming to the same standard and all priced within 20% of $19/month, that can safely be considered a commodity service. As your firm migrates up through faster access approaches, like ISDN through T1 lines, the installed base drops but the performance standards remain, as does commodity pricing. Likewise, basic Web hosting equates to hard-drive storage coupled, once again, to communication standards. With hard drives approximating interchangeable commodities, it is not surprising that the price to host a given Web-site size and throughput varies less than 20% among vendors. On the other hand, Web-site content-development costs vary from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands, often based on what the market will bear for an artist's reputation.

"Many Internet service providers [ISPs] promote the value of integrating all Internet services," noted Shai, "but upon close examination, integrating the Web-site development and Web-site hosting make as much sense as integrating an ad agency and a printing company to produce our brochure."

Even if you do, you are receiving the services of two different companies. One deals with creative design layouts, online transactions and database-Web site connectivity programming, whereas the latter deals with communication protocols and system administration.

Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, in their book, In Search of Excellence, came up with Rule #6: "Stick to the knitting," because running even one business well is a challenge. Hitch your wagon to an ISP trying to juggle both businesses, and you may hear excuses about slow Web servers because an upgrade is awaiting the completion of a rush Web-design job or an excuse about a latent software bug in your Web site awaiting the attention of the ISP's lead technical person, who has his hands full installing new routers. Slogans come to mind about the strength of the weakest link in the chain, or about getting the worst of both worlds.

If you accept the logic of decomposing and simplifying your company's Internet presence into Web development and Web hosting, solving the two smaller problems becomes easier. Commodity services such as Web hosting and Internet access fit neatly into the responsibilities of your Data Processing department. From operating your LAN, they know data-communications hardware, software and services. Internet access is just a new standard to which they apply their proven principles to the transition from modems to communication servers to intranets. Likewise, Web hosting and Web servers, in general, simplify into system-administration tasks familiar to those driving your network operating system. Given the portability of a Web-site address using a domain name and the propensity of ISPs to host Web sites at below cost to gain market share, your DP department may well choose Web hosting through an ISP.

Web-site development, on the other hand, often begins with your Marketing department fielding the company brochure and progressing to application development through other departments. The applications may include programming to connect legacy databases to the web, such as inventory to allow online product sales or the more comprehensive Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) to support many facets of customer and vendor communication. As other departments weigh in with Web applications such as automating tech support or online project collaboration, the pattern will resemble your existing software-development activities. To decompose this problem into simpler pieces, you follow the software-development pattern and require each department to have at least one person who understands the department's needs and how to buy or develop the tools to meet those needs, in this case to buy or develop Web-site content.

Do not expect this simplification of the problem to be well received by your Webmaster and others with plans to establish a new department that manages the complex problem of a company's comprehensive Internet presence. The popular cry for a common look-and-feel to the corporate Web site is easily countered--your application engineers understand how to use design templates. The outcome, however, may be as inevitable as the empowerment of each department back when PCs ushered in distributed software-application development.

This ultimate simplification and delegation to the departmental level brings a welcome side effect. Departmentally-sourced Web content begins to include fewer entertaining animations and other technical curiosities, while increasing the value and effectiveness of the information content. This is a byproduct of solving the original problem by simplifying it into small problems that can be solved by specialists who are clear on their department's mission--as opposed to an "Internet department" trying to demonstrate grand solutions with or without matching problems.

Another welcome side effect is that your DP department will resist the occasional proprietary Web solution put forward by application engineers. As system administrators, they will question the need to go with a proprietary shopping-cart solution, for example, if it ties them to a single vendor's interface requirements--even if the aapplication engineer promotes it as the best solution to his department's problem.

Perhaps the best side effect is your increased clout with your vendors. Not only does a separation of Web content development from Web hosting allow you to select best-of-breed vendors, but it becomes simpler to evaluate their performance and to remedy shortfalls. Web hosting that is growing slow with your increasing traffic, for example, becomes a self-contained problem. You can give your vendor a deadline to fix the problem and determine if he did. If not, one phone call later your Web site can be hosted by another vendor who is only too happy to inform InterNIC that your Web site's domain address should now point to the IP address of the new vendor's server. You inform your Web developers that they have a new FTP address to which to upload their changes, and the entire transition is transparent to your customers--except they now get Web pages faster.

"If Web developers don't meet our deadlines or our quality expectations," Shai pointed out to his Web-site developer (who is also the author of this article), "we can rearrange such vendors by simply changing their FTP password to the Web server maintained by someone else."

Of course, you don't have to go through new vendors just because you can, but it is important to hold the high cards if you need to. In fact, you are less likely to change vendors when they form a habit of earning your business every day--because they have to.

The most common reason to pay the extra cost of bringing Web development and Web hosting in-house is to gain control over the increasingly important cyber-destiny of the company. Given the vendor clout afforded by decomposing and simplifying the problem into its components, you can retain more control than if you do it all in-house because you can thus rearrange vendors easier than you can employees.

"I can also mix and match vendors and employees to component problems while I focus on strategic and planning issues surrounding our company's Internet presence," summarized Shai, "which of course is the problem component best matched to an engineering manager."

Peter Shikli graduated UCLA's School of Engineering in 1972, obtained an MBA from Loyola a few years later, and eventually founded BusinessWare, a company specializing in information delivery, Web sites and Internet marketing. He has hands-on experience designing over a hundred sites, and is the Chairman of the Orange County Business Council's Internet Consortium, You can e-mail him, or call him at (949) 369-1638, ext. 77.

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