Fearing overloads as holiday shoppers rush to their online doors, some sites say they are adding servers and otherwise preparing for what is sure to be the Net's biggest holiday season yet.
But companies that sell the hardware and software that power the big e-commerce sites insist that the preparation for holiday shopping is something they factor in to their offerings long before consumers start sketching out their holiday shopping lists.
"From America Online to the smallest Web site, people have anticipated how much bigger demand will be," said Jim Adkins, vice president with the Sun-Netscape alliance's e-commerce applications division. "Sites have been buying and building with those expectations all year."
Adkins termed 1999 a "very successful" year for server software sales.
At IBM, preparations are similarly spread out for the holidays.
"We have a set of customers we know will have peaks with the Thanksgiving to Christmas timeframe, and we're working with those firms doing performance tuning," said Ed Kilroy, general manager for e-commerce at IBM. "But it's not something that we have just started up. We're working all year with our customers on scalability, availability and reliability--that's a 12 months of a year concern."
Adkins stressed the importance of planning for year-over-year growth in software services rather than focusing on seasonal spikes. He said software and services sales are roughly doubling annually.
Nonetheless, the holidays loom large in a company's planning from the beginning.
"No vendor is going to start planning for this three weeks before they generate 60 percent of their revenue for the year," he said.
The most obvious problem facing sites during the holiday crush is the challenge of keeping their doors open as hordes of Web shoppers pummel servers. Even in advance of the holidays, e-tailing heavyweights including Amazon and eBay have faced downtime and outages.
Yet outages or not, many online stores are seeing traffic and sales skyrocket.
IBM customer Macy's, for example, saw its Web site's peak volume triple between Christmas of 1998 and summer of 1999, according to Kilroy. "Customer demand is growing extremely rapidly all through the year," he said.
But e-commerce sites have goals beyond just accommodating the crowds, Adkins said. Another priority for the sites has been integrating online operations better with the rest of their business processes, making online purchasing work with the information systems of suppliers, financial partners, and shipping and customs partners.
"Businesses are saying, 'This is great, but I'm still losing money on every transaction,'" Adkins said. "Now they're asking, 'How do I engage my partners directly using interactive technologies?' Businesses need to do things that reflect core competencies of partners who engage in a behind-the-scenes context and pass that value along to customers.
"It's not just whether you can take a hundred thousand visitors today over 25,000," he said. "We view that as a basic quality-of-service issue."