Why do giant sites keep failing?
May 24, 1999
by David Essex
(IDG) -- What's behind the recent spate of well-publicized crashes at Web megasites like Charles Schwab, EBay, and E-Trade?
In a word, growth.
Unexpectedly high demand keeps overloading systems pieced together without sufficient testing, say analysts and companies that run the sites.
There's been no shortage of such problems. For example, auctioneer EBay froze out bidders for hours on May 3 and May 20. March 17 was a particularly rough day for the Schwab and E-Trade financial sites, with Schwab's trading page crashing completely for 15 minutes, while E-Trade customers intermittently were blocked from executing trades.
"Too much growth can lead to serious growing pains," International Data Corporation analyst Paul Johnson summarizes in a May 19 statement. "Companies can quickly outgrow their technologies in a very short period of time."
Failing the test of time
Even sites that invest heavily in new technology usually can't fully test the new systems before putting them online, according to IDC.
Witness E-Trade's February meltdowns, which were blamed on software upgrades that did not perform live as they did in quality-assurance tests, according to company spokesperson Lisa Nash.
Last September, E-Trade began installing new systems and software from big-name Internet vendors including Cisco Systems, Netscape Communications, and Sun Microsystems. The new site architecture can handle "spikes of volume" four times the typical 70,000 trades per day, and makes it easier to add computing capacity without taking the system offline, Nash says.
IDC calls the patent-pending architecture "right on target" but cautions it doesn't guarantee smooth sailing.
Schwab attributes its crashes to complicated interactions between software and hardware, including mainframe computers. "The volumes you're seeing on the Web have just surprised everyone," explains Schwab spokesperson Tracey Gordon. At the beginning of last year, 10,000 simultaneous--not daily--trades were typical. By December, that number grew to 100,000.
To meet demand, Schwab is working closely with Cisco, IBM, and Sun to build a system that can handle 200,000 simultaneous trades and will include a duplicate data center that can come online instantly if the primary one fails, according to Gordon.
Schwab will also add phone representatives and beef up the capacity of its automated phone system. And it's running an ad campaign aimed to let customers know some of the limits of online trading.
EBay, which pointed to hardware problems after the May 3 crash, did not return phone calls for this report.
Why isn't online customer service better?
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