As the standard for e-business Web sites moves ever higher and online shoppers become increasingly demanding, Web site performance can make the difference between a sale and a lost customer.
San Diego, California-based Webmetrics is one of the leading companies in the burgeoning Web performance testing space. CEO Tim Drees founded the privately held company in March 1999 to provide transaction monitoring services. Since then, the company has branched out into other managed services that measure Web site performance in a variety of ways.
Drees recently spoke with the E-Commerce Times about the Web performance business and the evolution of this growing industry.
E-Commerce Times: What was your background prior to Webmetrics?
Tim Drees: Before Webmetrics, I was with Navisite, which was at the time the industry leader in hosting. They hosted AltaVista, Bloomingdale’s and many other big-name Web companies. Through my experience at Navisite, I found there was a [lack of] quality ways of determining whether these companies’ Web sites and applications were working properly 24/7.
Navisite had invested a lot of money in their back-end monitoring capabilities with products like BMC and many others, yet companies like Bloomingdale’s would be calling on weekends, saying, “Hey, my site is down,” and then Navisite would be looking at their back-end monitoring products and saying, “Well, all we see is green light, so it has to be working.” So there was this disconnect between monitoring all these pieces on the back end, like monitoring the database server versus monitoring the Web servers and so forth and the site itself actually working properly.
ECT: What was the genesis of Webmetrics’ founding?
Drees: I started the company back in 1999 with Doug Taylor, who worked for Network Solutions. We used my stock from Navisite and his from Network Solutions and leveraged it to start this new company. The company is privately held and run by us.
We [started] with the idea of what we call application monitoring, which encompasses transactional performance, transactional uptime and transactional quality, with our AppMonitor product. From there we extended into Web site monitoring, which is what Keynote is famous for — just pulling down a Web page and making sure it is performing properly.
ECT: Describe what application, or transactional, monitoring entails.
Drees: Transactional monitoring is simply setting up synthetic users to go into Web sites and simulate transactions.
We saw that the only way of properly monitoring complex systems was by simulating synthetic transactions — going in and making virtual transactions 24/7 at five-minute intervals, with simulated virtual users. There are so many complex pieces that fit all the glue of the application servers, Web servers [and] database servers together that it [is] almost impossible to properly monitor it by monitoring just unusual pieces of the infrastructure. The only way to properly monitor complex applications and Web sites is to simulate users using them.
ECT: What are some examples of transactional monitoring?
Drees: Transactions can be very complex or very simple. A Google transaction would be going to Google and searching for “book.” That’s a two-step process. But really it is the only way to verify if their search engine is working properly — that is, to go in, search for something and check the results.
A typical transaction for Amazon would be: step one, going to their Web site; step two, searching for a book; step three, adding it to the cart; step four, entering your credit card information; step five, submitting and verifying some order number at the end.
ECT: Do most e-commerce Web sites employ transactional monitoring?
Drees: Transactional monitoring is still not a ubiquitous thing in the Internet space. People are pretty familiar with monitoring a Web site. That’s sort of a natural thing. What people don’t know is that you can actually simulate these transactions. Some of these are very complex in nature, with a lot of things going on in the back end, but there hasn’t been a situation where we haven’t been able to monitor a customer.
ECT: Describe the tools Webmetrics offers to measure Web site performance.
Drees: We have three current core offerings. SiteMonitor for Web site monitoring helps you figure out how fast your Web site is loading. When you’re talking about overall Web page load-time performance, you’re talking about the whole page, including all the images that are loaded onto it. It’s a valuable service because people make mistakes with their Web site design. Maybe they forgot to optimize or compress the images, things of that nature.
More importantly, SiteMonitor checks the download of whatever page you want and makes sure it comes within the threshold you want. If it doesn’t, you get alerted. You get a pager or a cell phone message, and then you get daily, weekly, monthly reports for your site.
Our transactional monitoring product, AppMonitor, does everything Web site monitoring does in a multi-transactional format. It goes to the home page, the “buy now” page, the shopping cart page and the order fulfillment page. It handles transactional monitoring, which we discussed earlier.
We also do load testing, a sort of obvious transition from what we have with the monitoring. Our load-testing product, SiteStress, hammers your site with as many people as you can possibly handle in as short a time period as you want to see that load. This is great for companies that plan to have a big launch [or] a new release and want to make sure they can handle that load.
ECT: How are your tools and services evolving?
Drees: In the past, things were done kind of piecemeal. We are trying to be a pioneer in putting all that data together in one place.
Webmetrics is moving toward the convergence of data: all the data that surrounds a Web site; anything you need to gather information about your Web site’s performance; and any way you want to look at the term “performance” in an engineering sense. It could be, “How is it performing from a marketing standpoint?” or, “How is it performing from a performance standpoint?”
We are getting into the analytics space, and what we are looking at for the future is data correlation — convergence of all the data that is out there. If you are talking with Keynote, they are probably about all this performance data, how to make things faster and so forth. If you talk with an analytics company, they are going to tell you that they are tracking how many visitors are going to the Web homepage, how many are buying and how many are leaving. What we’re doing in the future is converging that data — presenting reports that are data-correlated. We’re very excited about this moving forward.
What that means in simpler terms is that we are launching an analytics product. It’s not out yet, and it’s not named. This analytics product offers the ability to converge all the data we’re gathering and provide actionable information to our customers. You can take two different data sets and start making correlations, and you’ve got something really exciting.
ECT: Do you have a timetable of when this analytics program is going to be out?
Drees: We actually have it in beta right now for a subset of our current customers. We’re going to have the beta announcement on our Web site soon. The first rev of the product is supposed to be out in late April.
ECT: How does analytics work?
Drees: Here’s a really simple example. Let’s say you’re looking at your Web site performance on a day-to-day basis, and you notice that every morning at nine o’clock your Web performance spikes and gets really slow. You kind of know offhand what is going on — people are getting into work and logging on — but the analytics data will provide exact information about that performance jump. So you’ll see your Web site performance spike, a load-time slowdown spike, and your hits-per-minute spike at the same time, and obviously you’ll know that your Web site performance is going to suffer if you get a lot of visitors.
Or you might see a spike in performance without the increase in Web traffic, and that’s a whole other problem that needs to be addressed. That’s why getting into this convergence of data is so exciting.
ECT: What companies are Webmetrics’ primary competitors, and how does Webmetrics differentiate itself from them?
All of us have sort of evolved with the same products, so that question is getting harder to answer for all the companies in this space. But every one has its focus, and every one does things a little differently. Keynote is very focused on raw Web site performance; it has the most POPs, for example.
Really, the [question] is, “Where we are going to be different moving forward?” and [the answer is] convergence of data. We are going to be the first [of these companies] offering an analytics product and having a unified analytics and monitoring product.
We changed the name of the company last year from WebmasterSolutions to Webmetrics because it’s a name that better fits this view of all this data that we are going to bring together and put in one place.
ECT: In your space, what software model is more common, the delivered model or the ASP/outsourced model?
Drees: In the monitoring space, it is almost always an ASP or an outsourcing model because of the nature of what we do. We’re monitoring externally from around 17 cities in the U.S. It doesn’t make any sense for companies to make that type of investment in hardware to monitor it the way we do it.
With load testing, you get a good mix of people buying software and doing it themselves or outsourcing. There are advantages to each. We don’t have hard numbers, but we think it’s about half and half.
ECT: When you measure an e-commerce site, what problems do you most frequently encounter?
Drees: It used to be Internet connectivity was a big concern, and then the quality of the connection was the biggest concern. But now the biggest concern appears to be the applications themselves.
The reason this is the way it is — and the way it is going to be indefinitely — is because of the complex nature of the environment the applications run on. They run on a variety of different servers, they involve the database and the application server, there is custom code always being developed for every customer, and the underlying applications that the Web site is running on are also very complex in their own right.
ECT: What do companies need to do to increase their performance from a high-level perspective? Why do some companies do a great job with Web site performance while others don’t?
Drees: Simply put, some organizations have a dedication to performance, and others don’t.
I think this dedication has to come from the top down — the CTO or CEO level, depending on the company. “We’ve got to have a super-fast Web site, and it can never go down,” they say, and then they set specific performance goals. The companies that do that achieve it. When you can go to your staff and say, “Here, look at the numbers we’ve got to meet,” they can do it.
When it’s unclear, when there’s no direction, things kind of fall apart, and the site doesn’t work that well or gets slow. It really depends on the direction they are getting from the top down.