Site Saviors

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-03-26 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Web managers asked to do more — but keep site under budget

Thomas Harrer didnt get much sleep his first four months on the job.

When Harrer became director of systems at iWon.com in December 1999, the Web portal was woefully underpowered. The site, which had launched two months earlier, was originally designed to handle 10 million hits per day — but it was receiving demand well above that. Harrers charge: Boost capacity as fast as humanly possible. To do that, he and the sites two other full-time engineers had to brew a few pots of coffee.

"We were up 20 to 25 hours at a time working on the site," he recalls. "I think one of our guys was up for almost 36 hours straight." The 26-year-old Harrer says he basically lived out of a hotel room in Jersey City, N.J., for several months in order to be close to the data centers of iWons colocation providers, Exodus Communications and Globix.

But times have changed, to put it mildly. Whereas the priority during iWons frenetic, caffeine-fueled early days was growth at all costs, the directive now is to keep expenses contained.

"A year ago, it was an open checkbook," Harrer says. "When the market was doing very well, and there was a large interest from investors in Internet companies, we were trying to grow and expand our content as quickly as possible."

These days, his schedule is less hairy. Harrer oversees a group of 23 systems engineers, Web application developers and other technical personnel at the companys Irvington, N.Y., headquarters. IWon, whose big marketing gimmick is a promise of winning up to $10 million in cash, has become one of the most popular destinations on the Net with more than 8 million unique visitors last month, according to Jupiter Media Metrix.

Privately held iWon does not disclose its revenue, but the site currently is not profitable, according to a company spokeswoman. Last week, the company laid off an undisclosed number of employees. Harrer says that as iWons goals have shifted from growing rapidly to creating a viable business, hes had to concern himself with keeping infrastructure costs low.

"You can go from spending millions of dollars on servers to under a million, depending on which platforms and infrastructure you choose," he says. "Its been a real challenge to provide up-to-date services and dynamic content while making sure its cost effective."

Cost Controls

Harrers experience is being shared by many other Web managers — historically, a group of multitalented Internet professionals collectively called "Webmasters." Today, the marching orders to these front-line operations executives is: Do more, but do it without breaking the bank.

According to Interactive Weeks recently completed annual survey of 553 Webmasters, most Web site operational budgets are expected to increase this year over last. Web site budgets for 2000 averaged $404,500, and Webmasters say they expect to see that increase to $508,000 for this calendar year.

On the high end, 7.5 percent of Webmasters we surveyed say their budgets for 2001 will be $1 million or greater, up from 6.2 percent who say their 2000 budgets were in the same range.

However, the days of virtually unlimited budgets to build out and support a Web site appear to be gone forever — although, to be clear, some Webmasters never enjoyed such a luxury. As Internet Economy fever has cooled into clammy corpses of bankrupt dot-coms, Webmasters face a very tough fight to secure any additional dollars. Investments must be carefully justified by revenue-producing projects, because those companies have seen buckets of money poured into bottomless, cash-gobbling Web sites.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the dot-com immolation — combined with the Internet retrenchment of large companies like The Walt Disney Co. — has booted thousands of Web professionals out of work. But according to our Webmaster survey, the majority of companies have not pulled back their Internet initiatives or laid off staffers in Web-related positions: Only 7.5 percent of Webmasters say positions were cut in the last year. Meanwhile, 27 percent say that their organization increased the number of Web positions in the past year, and 65.5 percent say there was no change.

Dell Computer, one of the highest-growth tech companies on the planet, recently hit financial turmoil. The sagging PC market has spared no one, and Dell last month announced its first-ever layoffs, letting go 1,700 of its 40,200 employees. But even in the new climate of fiscal conservatism at Dell, Aga Webb, senior manager of Dells global content publishing group, says she doesnt expect the company to make any significant changes to its site operations.

"We dont see a change in terms of our commitment to quality or leveraging the best technologies as possible," Webb says. However, she adds, "We are driving to have a very streamlined operation. At Dell, its always been the focus to be as efficient as possible."

In a similar vein, iWons Harrer is now redesigning his infrastructure in a continuous process so it will run as cost-efficiently as possible. The site was built on servers running Sun Microsystems Solaris operating system — a reliable and high-performance platform, Harrer says, but one that requires very costly hardware compared with Linux running on PCs. Hes analyzing which portions of the site can be migrated onto cheaper hardware.

"Basically, we try to break down applications to determine their revenue-generating abilities and match that with the money weve spent on the infrastructure side," he says. "For something that is known to not get great ad revenue, were obviously not going to spend a lot of time and resources on it."

For example, Harrer says, iWons chat rooms dont have very high ad banner click-through rates. If the chat-room servers fail, its not as big a disaster to the company as it would be if the ad servers themselves failed.

"There are certain things we consider dont touch, its core to our business, " he says. "Other stuff, if we lose it, it doesnt matter. Its a matter of finding a way to build systems that are quick, cheap and reliable."

Another Web manager whos had to maximize the capabilities of his existing infrastructure is Chris Ellenburg, the Webmaster at WFMY News 2, the CBS affiliate television station in Greensboro, N.C., owned by Gannett. Ellenburg single-handedly runs the stations entire Web operation; hes a one-man band who is a combination Linux programmer, Web designer, network engineer and all-around tech support guy. In short, hes the classic definition of a Webmaster.

"The staff for the Web site is me," he says. "I do a little of everything — I keep a watch over it and make sure stuff is spelled right."

Limited Resources

To date, Ellenburg has had to scrape by on pretty slim resources. For one thing, the WFMY site has only an Integrated Services Digital Network connection to the Internet, which supplies a relatively meager 128 kilobits per second of bandwidth. Thats hooked up to a single Linux server. When the site receives heavy traffic, the infrastructure just cant keep up. In particular, demand spikes when bad weather hits the Greensboro area; a recent storm warning drew 1.5 million hits in one day. A fatter pipe and additional servers would help tremendously, but those items have not made it into the budget. Ellenburg, then, has had to figure out new tricks to optimize the site by tweaking server application code.

Now, Gannett is aggressively pushing forward its plans to consolidate all 22 of its TV stations Web sites, including that of WFMY News 2, into one colocation facility in about three months. While the consolidation plan should help alleviate the bandwidth crunch Ellenburg has bumped up against as well as save Gannett money by grouping its stations servers together, it dumps an entirely new challenge in Ellenburgs lap: He now has 90 days to get up to speed on Microsoft Windows 2000 — on which all of Gannetts TV sites will be required to run — and migrate his Linux-based applications to the server platform.

"At first I said, No, you cant do this to me! " Ellenburg says. "As a Linux guy, I was horrified, to say the least." But after spending some time studying Microsofts development tools, hes optimistic that the transition will not be too painful.

Another item on Ellenburgs wish list is to hire a full-time content producer to generate original, in-depth content for the site. Currently, the station basically runs the same material from its news broadcasts. But WFMY cant afford to expand its 130-person staff.

"It comes down to the budget," Ellenburg says. "Theyll allow us to have only so many people at the station."

We Love This Job!

Yet, despite the technical headaches and tight budgets, many Webmasters say they love their jobs and the interesting variety thats thrown their way each day. Morale among Webmasters is fairly high. Respondents to Interactive Weeks survey rank their departments morale a 7.1 on a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 being the highest — and they rated their job satisfaction even higher, at an average of 7.3.

"I love the people I work with, and I love the Internet business," says Allstate.coms Rich Heneberry, who oversees the insurance companys Internet presence. "Its exciting, its motivating, and its an ongoing challenge."

Of course, this enthusiasm doesnt mean Web managers are happy with everything about their work. One hot-button issue is staffing levels. A majority of those surveyed — 55.6 percent — say their departments are shorthanded or drastically shorthanded. And what goes better with being overworked than being underpaid? Almost 80 percent of Webmasters say theyre seeking a raise this year. In general, Web professionals salaries in 2001 edged up only slightly over last year, according to our survey. In 2000, 26.2 percent of respondents said they were bringing in $60,000 or more, whereas in 2001, 27.7 percent are in that income bracket.

Actually, it turns out that its a good thing to hold a job requiring such a diverse set of skills and sensibilities — solving complex management tasks, while also mastering constantly evolving technology — because its extremely hard to find people who are qualified to do it. Never mind the dot-com death spirals; superior Web professionals are still scarce, executives say.

Combine that with the small staffs typical in many organizations — 40.4 percent of survey respondents say they are the solitary member of their companys Web team — and its a recipe for a high degree of job security.

"They cant fire me," says one Webmaster who wishes to remain anonymous. "No one else in the company wants to do my job."

Linda Severson, director of business systems at retail site LandsEnd.com, knows how arduous it is to recruit, train and retain top Web talent. Her strategy to deal with staffing is to balance full-time staff with external consultants.

"In some cases, using external consulting lets you react much more quickly — not because your own people cant handle it, but because its easy to add that work force when you need more people," she says. LandsEnd.com contracts Web development work from IBM Global Solutions and Sapient, among other specialty consulting firms.

As for her full-time Web staff, Severson says, "You need internal people who really understand the site to keep the high level of usability, and you need to keep the internal group working on some of the new and exciting stuff to keep them energized."

But just getting the core staff in place can be difficult. Dells Webb also has firsthand experience of how tough it is to hire great Web professionals. Her staff, which maintains Dells Web content, design and applications, has tripled to 18 members in about a year and a half.

"It really hasnt become any easier to get qualified and experienced people," she says. "The job market is still very tight in the information technology space."

Dell — which says it sold about $16 billion worth of PCs and other gear online last year, or half its total revenue — treats its Internet operations a bit differently than companies with smaller sites. Dells Web operations are broken into several discrete groups. One takes care of just the portions of the site on which e-commerce transactions occur. Another team monitors the performance and uptime of the servers and network. Theres even a group focused on measuring Web site traffic and analyzing how customers click from one area to another.

Webbs group handles everything else. That comprises upward of 30,000 Web pages, which are published twice daily because various product groups constantly update much of that content. Her staff also helps produce Dells international sites in 85 countries and 19 languages.

"Were the guys who get to build it and code it," Webb says. "And my team is just crazy about what they do. Part of that is related to how dedicated the technology folks are in working on all the exciting and new technologies."

Techno Babble

But staying abreast of changes in technology can be never-ending drudge work for Web managers — for some, in fact, its an even bigger source of day-to-day anxiety than budgets. In our survey, respondents rated "keeping up with new tools and technologies" as their No. 1 challenge overall, ahead of budget concerns or managing staff.

LandsEnd.coms Severson believes that separating the reality from the hype about emerging technologies is one of the most demanding parts of her job.

"There are a million ideas out there, and every one could really make a difference for your site," she says. "The challenge is trying to balance it out, so you listen to [technology vendors] but try to easily say, Is there something to this, or not? "

Seversons cardinal rule: Dont get carried away with technology for technologys sake. It may look cool and whizzy, but "if your customers arent going to use it, its a waste of time and money," she says. The focus must be on how additions to the site will benefit customers, she says, so any new hardware or software — any new feature introduced to the site at all — must be implemented only if it will improve the way LandsEnd.com interacts with its customers.

Lands End, based in Dodgeville, Wis., has added several cutting-edge features to its site with that goal in mind. In 1999, it launched Lands End Live, based on software from Cisco Systems, which lets shoppers chat online with service representatives or request that someone call them to answer questions.

Allstate.coms Heneberry also is perpetually reviewing new technologies. There isnt a day that goes by, he says, without four or five technology proposals stacked on his desk.

"Were always looking at new and better ways to change our technology," he says. "But we have to go through a very rigorous process to assess the capabilities and scalability of each of these proposals and see if they fit into our overall plan."

The rapid rate at which Internet technologies continue to evolve makes the task of keeping current even more laborious. That phenomenon, in turn, is a branch of the larger concept of "moving at Web speed" — which is truly the Webmasters bête noire, since it feeds assumptions that an Internet site can somehow instantly materialize. But Webmasters say the business-line managers they deal with are beginning to understand the difference between a reasonable request and an outlandish one.

"We have far less of what used to happen when everything was in start-up mode, and we did it overnight or over the weekend," says Dells Webb. "Nobody has the expectation that theyll give us a launch date and get the full scope [of the project] delivered. Now, we all speak a similar language, and we know what they mean when they ask for a feature."

IWons Harrer found out the hard way how important it is to collaborate with the marketing and business development sides of the house so that everyones plans are aligned.

"Weve marketed [new features] and we did not realize the response would be so good," he says. "Now were able to say, Actually, you cant send out 25 million e-mails promoting that, because that application is running on just two servers."

Harrer may be just hitting his stride in whipping iWons site infrastructure into an economical, fast-and-lean Web machine. But of course, theres no guarantee iWon will still be in business next year. The company, which relies on online advertising revenue, could quietly join the unhappy fraternity of dead Internet companies — no matter how vigilant Harrer is in keeping a lid on the Web site expenses.

For now, Harrer is laboring hard to make the business succeed. And, with the all-nighters mostly out of the way, hes having fun.

"Its very hard work," he says. "But I love my job." Spoken like a true Webmaster.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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