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Speed, Speed, Speed does a lot more thinking than most other e-Business sites. With 200 to 300 attributes describing each product and service in its database, and considering every parent who visits the site has a child with unique learning abilities, the site has to process a wealth of information in order to present customers with the best available products. It's no surprise, then, that site performance is always a top consideration.

"Raw performance is what we're after," says CIO Richard Secor. "Any way we can get more performance, we'll do it."

Looking over the site topology, you notice one striking thing: There are no routers at the network border. Data comes into the system over two 100Mbps pipes and goes directly into a pair of switches and then on to's dual firewalls. According to Internet Engineer Kevin Grady, this is a deliberate solution.

"In order to obtain the highest speed possible and keep costs down, we did not want to deploy high-capacity routers to handle the traffic," explains Grady. "Because data hits a switch first and then goes directly to the firewall, there is no routing latency and a point of failure is eliminated."

From the firewall, data enters a hardware load-balancing device before moving on to the front-end servers. Each of the 22 Compaq* ProLiant* 6400R Web servers is equipped with four Intel® Pentium® III Xeon" processors 500MHz, with 512K of cache, and 512MB of main memory. On the back-end, employs a two-server cluster with failover capabilities to handle transactions and house the SQL database that contains the user information required to customize the site. Each of these Compaq ProLiant 5500R database servers has four Intel Pentium III Xeon processors 500MHz, with 1MB of cache, and 2GB of memory. They're attached to an RA4100 drive array that holds twelve 9GB U2W drives.

Also on the back-end are's two search and query servers. These are configured as standalone servers with a hardware load-balancing device in front to manage the traffic. Each is a Compaq ProLiant 5500R with four Intel Pentium III Xeon processors 500MHz, 1MB of cache, and 2GB of memory.

Tweak for Success
One important adjustment made to improve the performance of its site was to remove online credit authorization functionality from its checkout process. With online credit authorization, the site can approve credit card purchases instantlyor almost instantly.

Richard Secor describes a period when was fielding a wave of phone calls from customers saying the site was broken. They clicked submit at the checkout screen and got an error message. It turned out the problem was at the online credit authorization company's servers.

"At this crucial stage, when customers had made a commitment and even put products in their shopping cart, we weren't able to close the sale because of a problem that was out of our control," says Secor. To solve this problem, set up the online credit authorization software on its own separate server. In this way, customers see instantly that their order has been accepted whether or not the online credit authorization system is functioning properly. The online credit authorization processing takes place separately behind the scenes. If there is a problem with the credit approval, the customer will receive e-mail at a later time. According to Secor, the solution has resulted in a major improvement in customer satisfaction.

Another way is aiming to improve site performance is by evaluating and adding Intel® NetStructure" e-Commerce Accelerators to the mix. The Intel NetStructure appliance would sit between the site's firewall and hardware load-balancing devices and take over the task of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) processing from the Web servers.

In addition, is developing a new database architecture that would separate the customer history information from the transaction processing. This would help streamline the two separate processes of customizing Web pages and taking orders. According to Secor, "We will use an in-memory database that is optimized for the Intel® CPU architecture to deliver the absolute fastest possible performance during the crucial moments of every customer's online transaction."

And if it's going to look at adding new database servers, the company figured it should look at new technologies. Therefore it is evaluating a new Compaq 8-way server to help crunch data. chose to evaluate the Compaq server based on the farm of Compaq servers it already employs.

"We're careful to maintain a homogeneous environment and keep the number of vendors at a minimum. This helps minimize problems."
Richard Secor, Vice President and CIO,

"We're careful to maintain a homogeneous environment and keep the number of vendors at a minimum," says Secor. "We first look for a solution within a vendor that we're committed to and who is committed to us. This helps minimize problems."

Moving to Windows 2000
But perhaps the biggest change that has made in order to improve site performance is to migrate to Microsoft* Windows* 2000. The site actually rolled out its Windows 2000 deployment on March 1, making it one of the earliest e-Business adopters.

"We've found that Windows* 2000 is better optimized to take full advantage of the Intel® Architecture and we've seen a huge performance boost."
Kevin Grady, Internet Engineer,

"This was a risky thing for us to do," says Internet Engineer Kevin Grady. "But we've found that Windows 2000 is better optimized to take full advantage of the Intel® Architecture and we've seen a huge performance boost."

Moreover, says Grady, the scripting tools that come with Windows 2000 have made it much easier for him to manage the servers.

"It can be cumbersome to manage 40 servers, but with the right software tools, it doesn't have to be. With Windows 2000 scripting, what took three days to do before now takes four hours," explains Grady. "If you can script 99 percent of your management tasks, you'll have a lot better time managing your site."

Which isn't to say Grady entrusts all his management duties to Windows 2000 utilities. also uses Hyena*, a set of affordable, downloadable Windows NT and 2000 administration tools from Adkins Resource. In addition, it employs a program called ipMonitor (formerly named EnterpriseMonitor) from MediaHouse Software* for monitoring the site and reading the various log files that Windows 2000 and SQL Server create. All of which ensure that is getting the most out of its Intel Architecture servers.

Down the Road
Going forward, is planning even more ambitious steps to serve the parents who rely on its site for educational information. The biggest step will be to launch sites in different areas of the country. Although currently employs a third-party edge-caching service, it knows nothing will serve customers better than a nearby server farm.

The first place is looking to build an extra site is on the West Coast. California customers make up a good chunk of the site's business and the company wants to make sure those customers get the best service can provide. According to Secor, he'd like to build the new site at Intel® Online Services' data center in Santa Clara, California. Although he'd like to maintain the same control over those servers as he does over the servers at his Massachusetts-based co-location facility, he says he may look to purchase management services from Intel Online Services because of the sheer distance between the two coasts.

Beyond the West Coast, Secor say has identified Florida, Texas, and the Midwest as possible locations for new sites. A major challenge will be how to balance the load among the distributed sites, but the company says it has a solution in hand.

Ultimately,'s customers are the reason for all this attention to performance. The scalable Intel Architecture makes it easy for the site to drop in features and solutions that help the site deliver on its promise of being the premier online destination for helping educate children.

"You have to keep in mind that your ultimate goal is always to optimize the customer experience," says Secor. And in the case of, that experience is about much more than buying toys.

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