WEB IMPACT: New load balancers can help your site serve more customers

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Can you ever be too successful on the Web? The answer, paradoxically enough, is yes: There's absolutely no use attracting customers to your Web site if the site isn't ready to serve them.

The answer isn't just more -- or larger, more expensive -- Web servers. Instead, a new class of technology has emerged that lets companies efficiently balance out and deliver traffic among a group of Web servers.

So-called load balancers are fairly technical in nature, so if you're an online marketer, ask your information technology department to take a look. Chances are your IT staff is already thinking about ways to better manage your company's steadily increasing Web traffic.

Eliminating over-taxed servers

Load balancers work by taking incoming calls and automatically distributing them among your company's Web servers. The key is that the load-balancing software is constantly monitoring the state of your servers, making sure no one server becomes over-taxed. An over-taxed server will at best perform slowly and at worst turn customers away altogether.

Web traffic balancers also offer sophisticated traffic reporting and analysis features, and even safeguard the process of taking down and fixing Web servers.

The thing to remember is this: The answer to Web traffic problems isn't just to add more servers. Such a brute force solution will only mean that if traffic spikes up significantly, your servers will simply go down one at a time -- not much of an improvement.

Load balancers have emerged as a specialized application, with small vendors such as Resonate, Bright Tiger Technologies, Atreve Software and HydraNet Technologies.

But eventually look for such functionality to move directly into Web server platforms and Internet routers. That means big vendors like IBM Corp., Cisco Systems, Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. may ultimately offer solutions to aid Web traffic routing. Already, many Internet service providers and Web hosters offer some form of load balancing as part of their hosting deals, often as a premium feature where you can pay to keep your site accessible even during peak hours.

For technical reasons, load balancing is coming first -- and often working best -- in clusters of servers running on UNIX operating systems. The surging alternative to UNIX is Microsoft Windows NT. Microsoft is making a huge push to make NT servers more scalable and better able to handle large amounts of traffic.

Windows NT upgraded

In December, Microsoft released an incremental upgrade to its current version of Windows NT that for the first time makes is possible for NT servers to dynamically throttle up the bandwidth available to individual Web servers. Windows NT will get even more powerful this year with a major new upgrade.

That's the tech story behind this important new Web development. But better Web traffic management isn't just a techie issue -- it could mean life or death for your Web business.

A customer turned away could be a customer lost. And there's nothing more annoying for Web site visitors than typing in an address and watching the stars stream behind the N in their browser's Netscape logo as the server on the other end struggles to deliver their content.

If your top priority as an online marketer is to put your customers' needs first, then making sure your customers get onto your site in the first place should be at the top of your 1998 to-do list.

Richard Karpinski is editor at large for Internet Week and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw Hill.

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