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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Designing Your e-Business Site

The success of an e-Business depends to a large extent on its design. While you're designing your e-Business, you should take into account all the data gathered about its requirements (refer to the earlier section "Understanding the e-Business Requirements"). When you have the data gathered as input, the designing process basically consists of two steps:

  1. Choosing the design to model the e-Business

  2. Customizing the design to take advantage of the peculiarities of the particular business

Choosing a Design Model

Several different design trends are common for e-Businesses (refer to Table 3.2), so you should choose the model that suits your requirements. You may determine that one model doesn't satisfy all the requirements; in that case, you may have to choose a combination of designs.

Table 3.2 e-Business Design Models

Design Model Main Characteristic Main Considerations Example
Niche dominator You want to be the undisputed leader in a particular market niche. Ensure that the design meets the needs of specific types of customers. Be the first to market. Work on increasing brand-name awareness. Amazon.com
Information aggregator You want to make it easy for customers to search specific things quickly and be their"portal." Ensure a fast search engine. Allow customers to specify different search criteria. Yahoo!
Supply chain You want to make it easier for all members of a supply chain to perform transactions. Provide additional services such as e-mail and community sites. Focus on streamlining the business as a B2B environment. Enhance the notification mechanism.Integrate internal business processes. McKeeson.com
Sales channel You want to use the Internet as a new sales channel that will be used in addition to existing distribution channels. Make it easier for customers to compare your products to competitors' and see the benefit in doing business with you. Ensure easy payment and order tracking. Enhance notification mechanisms. Dell computers

Customizing the Design

After you choose the design model or models, you can look back at the data gathered by answering the questions posed earlier in the section "Understanding the e-Business Requirements." You then can customize the design to suit your organization and its goals. During the customization of the design, you can do the following:

  • Promote products and services that are superior to the competitors.

  • Provide services and support that satisfy the most important needs of the customer.

  • Focus on identifying and educating the customers with the cost savings that they will get from doing business with you.

  • Focus on making the customer experience pleasant.

Designing the Site

In designing any e-Commerce site, you should have three primary goals: speed, usability, and professional appearance. Achieving all three at the same time is not easy. For example, to speed up the processing, you might use a very simple design for your Web site, but then it might not be intuitive or give a professional image of the company. On the other hand, while you're trying to make the site usable and provide a professional appearance, you might overload the site with information and graphics that make it very slow.

Design is a balancing act considering all the previously discussed criteria. Your site design should do the following:

  • Make the user comfortable in using the Web site—for example, allowing real-time contact with a sales person or access to a bulletin board

  • Answer any questions the user may have

  • Allow quick order entry

  • Allow a variety of payment options

  • Allow tracking of shipment and orders

  • Be consistent with your existing business by trying to incorporate existing logos, store designs, and so on

  • Have acceptable performance even on slow connections such as 28.8K or 56K modems

Web Server Logs

Analyze your Web server's log files to determine how the users are using the Web site and where they spend the most time.

Here are some helpful tips for Web site design:

  • Give the users an overview of what the company provides and let them progressively click down to the details. Keep as much information as possible visible without cluttering the screen.

  • Make sure that the navigation items don't take up too much of the screen space.

  • Keep the design simple and straightforward. Don't use unnecessary colors and graphics.

  • Maintain an identity. For example, the page layout, HTML links, text, logo, and colors all give a unique identity to your Web site, so you should plan carefully depending on what the actual business is and what message you want to convey to the users.

  • Build sites that work regardless of the users' configurations, such as resolution and modem speed.

Designing the Web Applications

Designing Web-based applications and the architecture to support them is different from designing client/server applications. In the following sections, we'll look at some differences that an iDBA has to consider when making the transition from a traditional DBA role.

Using JavaScript Versus PL/SQL for Validation

Using client-side JavaScript code makes it efficient to perform client-side validation, especially if the users will be entering a great deal of information (that requires validation) on the HTML forms. For example, if the HTML form has required fields and if the validation is done using PL/SQL procedures, the PL/SQL procedures would need to verify each field and send back a meaningful error message for each field that is empty. This process is not very good because the user has to wait while the information is compiled on the server and the message is sent to the browser. JavaScript, on the other hand, allows you to create functions that can perform validation after the user clicks the Submit button.

Controlling Access to the Data

Several alternatives are available for controlling access to the database:

  • Using the application server's security functions—Oracle Internet Application Server (iAS), for example, allows you to restrict access to the entire application or only certain packages within the application. When the user logs in, the application server can determine the privileges assigned to that user and generate a cookie that is sent back to the user's PC. This cookie, which contains the necessary information about privileges, is persistent for the duration of the time the user's browser is open.

  • Using the database's access control mechanism—This method relies on the use of the Oracle database security mechanisms in place for controlling access to the database tables. This technique is best because security is centralized and not dependent on any access control via screens or session tracking. Chapter 8, "Security Issues," discusses some security solutions that you can use.

  • Employing custom-developed user profiles—This method does not use session information for controlling access; instead, you need to implement an alternative means of tracking user logons, such as with the help of cookies or passing login and other user preference information from one screen to another. This method is the most flexible but also requires the most effort because the implementation of security would require the development of your own user profile table, login screens, cookie management, and so on.

When you're dealing with users who are not set up to accept cookies and your application uses cookies, you could end up with a problem in which some obscure PL/SQL and Oracle errors are sent back to the users. A better approach is to display an information page that indicates to the users exactly why the application is unusable (that is, the cookie is not accepted by their settings). This page will allow them to determine whether they really want to accept the cookies.

Organize Your Directories

Different types of files are used in e-Business applications. It therefore would be useful for maintenance purposes to organize these files by their type, such as HTML files, PL/SQL source code, Java programs, CGI executables, Help files, and application images.

Considering Load Times of Images

Users usually have a very short attention span for Web applications; therefore, testing the download times of your Web pages is important. For this task, you could use the service of a company such as NetMechanic (http://www.netmechanic.com) that specializes in determining download times and reporting HTML problems.

You can employ several techniques to ensure that the load time of an image is minimized:

  • Experiment with different numbers of colors and determine the minimum number needed for the image. Then set the resolution to the lowest possible. Reducing the number of colors could affect the image quality but will improve the download time.

  • Use the LOWSRC attribute of the <IMG> tag. This attribute causes the lowest resolution copy of the image to be loaded when the <IMG> tag is encountered, and the real image is loaded in the background later. tag;LOWSRC attribute>

  • Identify the images with the longest load time and preload them into the client PC's memory.

  • Specify the WIDTH and HEIGHT attributes of the <IMG> tag so that the browser doesn't spend time calculating. tag;WIDTH attribute> tag;HEIGHT attribute>

  • Save images in the proper file format: JPEG, for images containing multiple colors and shades, and GIF, for images with a few basic colors. GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) can be used to compress images by saving large areas of a single color in a different format. As a result, the image is smaller than the corresponding JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group format).

Considering Which Results to Show

A query submitted by a user may return a large number of records. The basic question you must answer is "How many records should we display at a time?" You should consider several factors in making this decision:

  • The user probably won't be able to absorb large quantities of information at the same time.

  • Supplying too much information at the same time could significantly affect the download time.

  • Displaying only a few records at a time could be frustrating to a user if she wants to look at records that are not returned in the first few pages—for example, if she can view 20 records at a time and the records of interest are really in the 50th page.

  • Consider queries run by multiple users at the same time. Can the results be cached? Can cursors be reused? Can execution plans be optimized?

  • Is it possible to refine and rewrite the query to be more selective? If so, the Web application should provide the necessary functionality to allow the user to specify the criteria to make the query selective.

Always Keep an Eye on the Target

Numerous times I have come across competing products such that, after working with the products, I find that product A is a far more technically superior product than product B, but in spite of this fact, product B is very popular with the general public. You might think that this is not fair, but in reality, it happens all too often. Why? Because product A didn't really focus on its audience. It often takes a long time for people to figure out this basic fact.

When designing your e-Business, you should look at the requirements and constraints of the applications to be used and/or implemented. This will help you in designing the system and applications to suit the primary audience and users of the system.

Archiving Data

Databases can grow quite rapidly, and frequently a quick analysis will show that a great deal of data is accessed rarely. You can speed up information processing and query performance by archiving this data. You can use several techniques for the purpose of purging and archiving data:

  • Partitioning—Partitioning tables can provide a number of advantages:

    • Increase the performance of data retrieval

    • Allow users to access different partitions with minimal impact on other users

    • Allow users to write partition-aware queries

    The success of the partitioning technique depends on ensuring that the partitions reside on different disk controllers. For example, you can create a table with partitions that use different tablespaces such that the tablespaces reside on physically different disks (controlled by different disk controllers).

  • Data purging—Periodically, you might want to purge data so that the database size is kept manageable and performance kept high. However, this process is not easy for several reasons:

    • How do you choose what to purge and what not to purge?

    • How do you ensure that the purging process maintains the referential integrity?

    • What type of archival process should you use in conjunction with the data purge mechanism?

    You can associate a flag with the stored data to indicate whether it is purged or archived. You also could use a time stamp to track the archival process. You should determine the data purge and archival process early in the design phase so that the data model and choice of which business rules to support can factor in this process. By making this decision early, you can easily address the data purge and archive issues when the database starts growing rapidly after it is put in production.

The purge and archival process can be implemented using third-party tools such as Quest Software's Data Manager or can even be implemented manually by means of triggers that move data from the transactional tables to the historical tables based on some predefined criteria.

Understanding Application Frameworks

In an e-Business, application design and business design are closely tied together. Essentially, this means that in an e-Business architecture, the various isolated business applications such as order management, inventory management, customer service, financials, supply chain, and so on should be linked together in well-integrated modular building blocks that are often referred to as enterprise applications.

We have entered an era of complex, multifunctional integrated applications called application frameworks. These application frameworks, which form the foundation of an e-Business, are modular in nature, allowing the independent design of small subsystems that can function together to provide a complex service. Figure 3.2 shows how business applications have evolved over time. As you can see from this figure, business applications have evolved through three stages:

Stage 1 In this early stage, the business applications were task oriented, had a narrow focus, and were specialized—for example, order entry. These applications improved productivity of individual application segments, but the overall flow was slow and error prone.
Stage 2 This stage was advocated in the 1980s, wherein the applications were transformed to be more function oriented; for example, the order entry application transformed into a sales application.
Stage 3 In the early 1990s, businesses underwent significant changes that resulted in process reengineering. As a result, the focus shifted to the management and optimization of processes that are cross functional.

Figure 3.2 Evolution of business applications.

Let's look at the major cross-functional application frameworks and how the various functional applications are integrated into them:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

  • Sales

    Customer service

    Marketing

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)

  • Planning

    Forecasting

    Purchasing

    Inventory and warehousing

    Distribution

    Accounting

    Finance

  • Supply-Chain Management (SCM)

  • Market demand

    Scheduling

    Resource planning

    Capacity constraints

  • e-Procurement

  • Office supplies

    Business travel

    Service procurement, such as couriers, catering, health and safety, and so on

    Computer equipment and supplies

  • Selling-Chain Management (SeCM)

  • Pricing

    Contracts

    Product customization

    Commissions

    Quotes and proposals

  • Business Intelligence (BI)

  • Business analysis (reporting and filtering)

    Decision support systems

    Delivery systems

    Data capture

    Data warehousing

Figure 3.3 shows the various important application frameworks within an e-Business architecture.

The application frameworks described in the preceding lists are being rapidly adopted by businesses and require improved coordination between the various departments. Each application framework is a cluster of related functions that together provide a complex service.

Buying or Building the Application Frameworks

Companies often have to answer the question "To build or not to build?" This question has to be answered, even for application frameworks. Most companies that are trying to go in the application cluster path tend to buy and deploy packaged applications such as those provided by business application vendors—for example, Siebel Systems, SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft, J.D. Edwards, Baan, Clarify, and others. Following this approach is probably a better idea than building your own applications because you can easily customize most of the vendor-provided applications and your business should be focusing on building brand-name awareness, increasing customer loyalty, and providing solutions to customers instead of developing complex applications and reinventing the wheel. Using modular systems and packaged software has become increasingly acceptable and important in e-Businesses.

Figure 3.3 e-Business application framework.

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