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Tools Track Online Shopping

E-retailers gear up for the holidays by using software to monitor Web-site performance.
As online holiday shopping ramps up, companies are turning to more-sophisticated software to make sure their Web sites don't go down.

If sites don't return valid search results, drop desired products into shopping carts, or keep customers on board all the way to checkout, the result can be lost sales. As Web applications get more complex, sales of performance-monitoring tools rise.

"We want to know pretty much about every time someone tries to add something to their basket, but can't," says Steve Weiskircher, IT systems director at consumer-electronics seller Crutchfield Corp., which gets about half of its roughly $192 million in annual sales from its Web site. Using software from TeaLeaf Technology Inc., a privately held company spun off from SAP four years ago, Crutchfield's Web programmers can replay customer-shopping scenarios that trigger errors and diagnose whether problems are technical or if they stem from the site's design. "It helps isolate problems that are not immediately apparent," Weiskircher says. Crutchfield's Web developers use the tool daily.

The Art Of Web-Site Management

Recent developments in managing Web-site performance:

  • Keynote Systems: Entered deal with Hewlett-Packard to let users view results of synthetic transactions with HP OpenView measurement of J2EE application servers

  • TeaLeaf Technology: Added analytics, real-time dashboard-monitoring Web applications, and automatic test-script generation to RealiTea

  • Empirix: Released products to monitor Web-services performance

  • Mercury Interactive: Added features to its software that present real- and synthetic-transaction results in a common user interface

  • Sales of software for managing Web-site performance are growing 7% to 10% annually, to between $400 million and $500 million, amid a flat overall market for systems-management tools, according to market research firm Meta Group. In addition to TeaLeaf, vendors offering tools to test and monitor Web sites include Computer Associates, Empirix, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Keynote Systems, Mercury Interactive, and NetIQ. Such software can test the availability of a Web application, measure how fast it responds to requests, make sure the right actions occur online, and see how a site holds up under heavy use--particularly important during the holiday season.

    "This is the time of year when a lot of companies, especially retailers, are tested most by their customers and don't want to go down," says Corey Ferengul, a Meta Group analyst. One new area of vendor investment: Combining simulated transactions that can measure how a site is doing under specific loads at any time with actual customer data that can uncover problems. "Companies that fail to understand the whole user experience fall behind the competition," Ferengul says.

    Among the new offerings:

  • Keynote Systems, which sells load-testing and usability-analysis tools as a subscription service, last month said it would ship in December software called Application Perspective that sits behind customers' firewalls to monitor problems with Web servers, application servers, and databases. Prices start at $4,000 a month. It also introduced Performance Scoreboard, a portal for viewing the performance of multiple Web sites.
  • Mercury Interactive in September introduced versions of its Topaz software that can measure site transaction times against pre-defined goals and let users prioritize problems more easily.
  • TeaLeaf's RealiTea software can analyze Microsoft, Java, and Apache Web servers and organize resulting data by user session, which customers can replay. It's priced between $150,000 and $200,000 for a perpetual license.
  • Online holiday retail sales are expected to increase 21% to $17 billion this year, according to an October survey by market researcher Jupiter Research. Adding complexity to systems and creating demand for Web-site-performance software is the fact that more Web sites are integrated with companies' inventory databases for capabilities such as in-store pickup of merchandise bought online and one-stop shopping for airline tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurant reservations.