IBM Lab Helps Companies Think Big On The Web - InformationWeek

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1/23/2004
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IBM Lab Helps Companies Think Big On The Web

IBM's high-volume Web-site specialists made their name working with eBbay. Now they're helping companies such as Cigna, Schwab, and Wal-Mart think big on the Web.

On a remote parcel of acreage near the farmland south of San Jose, Calif., about 30 IBM software engineers are beavering away on a problem that seems almost passé: How to get big on the Web.

It's been four years since the market for Internet stocks began to dive. It's been nearly five year since eBay Inc. put Web-site uptime on the map with a series of well-publicized outages, and more than that since leaps in E-commerce sales started attracting IT departments' attention. But there are still plenty of problems for Web-site operators, and those 30 engineers--part of a much larger IBM software facility here--together with about 70 other developers and researchers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, are trying to solve some of the trickiest ones: Fortifying the Web sites of customers including Bank of America, Charles Schwab & Co., Cigna, Federated Department Stores, the New York Stock Exchange, and Wal-Mart Stores.

The group's claim to fame is helping eBay rebuild the software behind its $1.2 billion-a-year E-commerce site two years ago. Since then, eBay has bought more than 3,000 IBM servers, says VP Willy Chiu, who heads the lab.

Now, the biggest Web sites are looking for help building pools of servers to distribute computing power to the applications under the biggest load, integrating the apps behind a Web site using Web services, and building sites that serve information not just to PC-browsing software but to new types of computing devices such as cell phones. And they want it fast. "This is on-demand development," Chiu says. "Billions of dollars hang in the balance. We're not talking about 18 months later you see the code in production."

Last month, the development group shipped version 2 of software code-named Cayuga, developed with Cigna, Federated, and Schwab, for adding servers to a common pool to increase the capacity available to online apps. It's slated to ship as part of IBM's WebSphere suite by next year. Cigna VP and chief architect Jeff O'Dell says that right now each of his company's 37 WebSphere-based applications is set up to respond to peak demand for computing power. That raises costs. Down the road, he says, Cigna wants to use Cayuga to provision apps with computing cycles based on their actual needs, cutting back on the number of computers the company pays for.

Chiu's group has also developed an app called "Page Detailer" that instantly totes up the number of items on a Web page, how big they are, and how fast they load. Companies can compare their results with IBM benchmarks.

IBM also is researching whether open systems can deliver mainframe-like features, such as billing groups of users in a company by the computing time they use. That kind of functionality is in demand as IT departments centralize departmental computers, says IBM chief architect Luis Ostdiek.

Illustration by Steve Lyons

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