Leveraging Databases Through the Web

By Howard Baldwin

Allowing access to selected databases through Web browsers can boost employee productivity and customer service.They were not typical house hunters. Instead of scanning the real-estate classifieds in the local newspaper, this couple logged onto the World Wide Web site of Coldwell-Banker, one of the country's largest residential real-estate firms. Drilling down from the map of the U.S. into California, they arrived at the San Francisco Bay Area. Then they were asked for some specifics about the kind of house they wanted--price range, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the like--and eventually were given listings of homes for sale that met their criteria, including text descriptions and pictures. It was the same information they would have gotten in visiting a real-estate agent's office.

This was different, though. The day before, a Friday, they'd heard a radio ad for the Web site. On Saturday, they logged on and found a house that sounded promising. On Sunday, they toured it. On Monday, they made an offer, and on Tuesday, just five days after the couple first heard of the Web site, the sellers accepted their offer.

Of course, the buyers had done more than visit a Web site; they'd accessed a Sparc-based Web server, which was linked by TCP/IP to a database of homes listed for sale, also running on a Sparc server. Just as any corporate employee might do, they'd queried a database using a collection of parameters and come up with results that matched the query. Coldwell-Banker has opened this database to anyone who has access to the Web. Both customers and company benefit. The customers can check out houses without driving around looking at them, and the real-estate agents start closer to sales, because clients have already narrowed their search.

Better customer service and increased employee productivity are the twin advantages of linking a database to a Web site. Today, Web sites populated solely with static marketing information are being nosed out by sites that can better serve customers with targeted, almost personalized information. This is the first wave of Web-page interactivity that savvy IS directors have been anticipating. Database access interactivity is not as glitzy as adding sound and video to a Web site, but it's a good starting place to prepare for the near future when multimedia objects will be stored in a database.

It isn't surprising that service companies (which provide information) and retail companies (which handle transactions) are providing database access on the Web. And size doesn't matter. Choice Hotels International, with more than 3,200 properties worldwide, is providing database access to customers who want to make hotel reservations, while Wordsworth Books, a bookstore that has only a single physical location, is allowing database access through its Web site because cyberspace is cheaper than floor space.

In this scenario, database access doesn't mean throwing open the company's central production database for worldwide inspection; the appropriate secondary database differs from company to company. For Wordsworth, it's the inventory database, running on a PC using the Unix-like QNX operating system from QNX Software Systems of Kanata, Ontario, Canada, linked to a second PC acting as a Web server. For Coldwell-Banker, it's the database of listed homes, residing in an Informix database running on a Sparc-based Sun server linked to a second Sparc acting as the Web server. For Choice Hotels, it's the reservations database, residing in an Informix database running on a Pyramid Technology server linked to two Sparc servers, one acting as a firewall and the other as the Web server. Almost without exception, the computers running the databases communicate with the computers running the Web server through Ethernet and TCP/IP.

Database vendors, browser suppliers and developers of middleware and application development tools all offer solutions for this use. However, most database administrators (DBAs) will need to make sure that their tools will let their Web pages access multiple databases. And there are other gotchas to prepare for. Giving database access to a new group of people--whether customers or employees--involves planning and preparation to properly control performance, stay on top of bandwidth requirements and ensure security.

Pressing the Advantage

For many companies, linking their database to their Web site isn't their primary means of communications with their customers. However, its value may exceed initial expectations. Like Coldwell-Banker, which originally offered its house-hunting service through the online service Prodigy, Wordsworth Books in Cambridge, MA, began selling books through CompuServe for five years before it set up its Web site three years ago.

Having a section on computer books and being around the corner from Harvard Square always prodded the store toward the leading edge of technology. Now customers log on and order books electronically, without taking up an employee's time. The funny thing is, says Sanj Kharbanda, general manager, he never intended this approach to make money. "It was like having another person on the phone at the store, another way of giving information to our customers. But we get enough orders out of this Web site that it's paid for itself a long time ago." In one month earlier this year, the bookstore's Web site tallied some 500,000 hits, with half of those searching its 150,000-volume database.

Coldwell-Banker opens its Web site to both clients and real-estate agents. In fact, it was one of the first companies that looked at the Web initially for its intranet potential, according to George Aiello, president of Infinite Access, a consulting firm in Walnut Creek, CA, which helped Coldwell-Banker link its Web pages to that particular database. Initially, the company was considering ways to link its 55,000 sales associates in 2,500 franchises, but Aiello suggested that the Web could also be used to communicate with consumers. "It's helped their relocation services," he says. "Brokers and sales associates can communicate directly to consumers worldwide, as opposed to just the local market. It's a consumer system for finding properties and a tool for attracting listings."

Currently, the Web page is generating 1,000 sales leads a month. The firm hasn't yet calculated the number of deals that started on the Web and were consummated by its agents.

Choice Hotels, the Silver Spring, MD-based parent company of Quality Inns, Clarion Inns and Comfort Inns, among other chains, is using a link between its Web pages and its Informix database to help offload its nine telephone reservations centers across the U.S., according to Gary Thomson, vice president of computer operations and systems development. Even before Choice started advertising its universal resource locator (URL) as a way for guests to search for rooms and rates and make reservations, the Web page was getting some 3,000 hits a day. Although not all of those represent a room reservation, and rooms reserved through the system are still a small percentage of the company's total, "it's the cheapest reservation we make," says Thomson. "We don't have to pay a fee [to computer systems like Apollo or Sabre], and we don't have to pay travel agent commissions." Choice will encourage travel agents to use the system, because the company will still save money by reducing the number of human agents needed. The project took just nine months to complete, Thomson says, noting that the link has more than paid for itself.

Those are the basics. Customers can get information and service from a company without it having to necessarily expand its work force or its hours. A company is "open for business" no matter what time zone its customers might live in or what time of day they want to conduct business. That represents a potential productivity boost.

However, sources suggest, it may also represent a big shift in how companies are forced to conduct business. "You're allowing the customers to define the way they interact with your business, and that hasn't happened before," says Steve Dengler, president of Xenon Laboratories, an Internet integrator in Toronto. "Businesses have always defined how you interact with them, and now the tables are turning. That's going to increase competitiveness. If you're not willing to be customer-defined, you'll suffer. But you expand the potential customer base, because distance is irrelevant."

What to Watch Out for

As the Web has become a marketing tool, database vendors and developers of browsers and middleware development tools have figured out that their customers might want to link their Web sites and their databases. Strategically, these vendors want to extend the viability of their products during the transition from relational to object-oriented databases. Tactically, they want to give their current users the tools to implement easy database access. These new capabilities potentially can provide upgrade dollars. But users should tread carefully. Because this is a new arena, there are features you may need that may not be immediately available--such as Java support or systems management tools--or may require new database training. Both Informix and Computer Associates have added object-oriented databases to their current relational offerings, but integration between the two technologies won't happen immediately.

Nonetheless, implementing a Web-database link involves many familiar tools and development strategies. Think of it as another application development project, suggest those who have done it. First plan thoroughly, mapping the process, and wait until you're sure the structure is clear before coding begins. At the simplest level of linking a Web site to a database, you need to create a common gateway interface (CGI) application, which can be done in C, C++ or Microsoft VisualBasic; in Netscape's application programming interface (API) or Microsoft's Internet Information Server API; or in JavaScript, Perl or another scripting language. The script translates information into an SQL query, which is then transmitted to the database. But to do this requires competence in at least one of the following areas: the company's business issues, its database, the Web and the Internet, and basic programming. "Anyone can make a Web page," says Xenon's Dengler, "but it takes people with experience in database integration and strategic business knowledge to make integration work between the two."

At this point, performance becomes an issue, both with the database and the network. CGI is notoriously slow, because the application launches and executes its commands in realtime whenever it needs to access the database. In addition, users making queries frequently use the information they get to refine their queries. Because users don't want to access the database a second time within just a few minutes, you have to substitute for the typical "stateless" database condition (which closes the connection once the query is answered) a "stateful" condition. This requires building in a capability that will keep the database link open for a predetermined amount of time.

However, most of the sources we contacted hadn't found adverse affects on database performance, for the simple reason that Web access to the appropriate database actually represents only an incremental amount of new traffic. For Choice Hotels, more than 90 percent of the hits against its Choice 2001 reservations system, running on its Pyramid server, come from travel agents and other current users, not Web users.

Network Considerations

A related question is whether the database can handle all this new traffic. There will be people who may never have queried a database before, and access is bound to increase as word spreads of this technological leap forward. DBAs will feel the strain if what you're doing requires major overhauls of what they're doing. "You want a lightweight way of accessing a variety of database sources and not to impose requirements on systems you can't change or control," says Rich Mironov, director of the Internet products group for Sybase in Emeryville, CA.

As for the network, be cognizant of bandwidth demands. At Williams Telecommunications in Houston, Randy Tam, Internet supervisor, helps customers--such as finance companies and retailers--maintain and monitor their networks, including routers and frame-relay equipment. His group's work is akin to network management outsourcing. Customers can go to the company's Web site and, using a password, access a Sybase database running on a Sun Sparc workstation in Tam's office. Tam uses the Spectrum network monitoring hardware and software from Cabletron of Rochester, NH, to get up-to-the-minute Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) data, which is exported in ASCII-delimited format and imported into the Sybase database.

At any given time, the SNMP data may represent a graph of 100 data points. While one method to transmit this information would be to plot the graph, generate a .GIF file and transmit that to the client, that's a huge drain on the processing power of the Web server, especially if, as in Tam's case, clients are doing it all day long. Instead of using HTML and CGI, his group is using Java. "We ship the applet to the client desktop and then ship the data to the client, and let Java create the graph on the client machine. We're saving the processing power of the server and the bandwidth of the network," he says. Ideally, he'd like to see Java objects that can issue SQL calls directly from applets.

As with any transactional system, security is crucial. There are two basic kinds of troublemakers: sniffers and hackers. Sniffers tap the phone lines to see what goes by; hackers sneak into systems to see what is stored. Here, the fundamentals apply, suggest the experts. In the beginning, set up firewalls. If you're allowing regular customers access to the database, issue passwords. Encrypt all transmissions.

When the system's online, don't transmit two pieces of information that, used together, can benefit sniffers--for instance, if you transmit a customer's account number, don't transmit their name, and vice versa. Keep sensitive information where it might be vulnerable for as little time as possible. In systems he's designed for financial firms, Aiello of Infinite Access insists that no more than an hour's worth of credit-card numbers are kept on the system. "They're moved by sneakernet to another system. If we had thousands of credit cards online, somebody would figure out how to hack into them."

At Choice Hotels, before the Web page was configured to allow guests to confirm reservations with their credit cards, Thomson simply gave them access to the chain's property list and room rates, and let them reserve a room with a promised "Internet discount." Then guests were instructed to call an 800 number to give a human their credit card and confirmation number. "That still lowers our costs, because the person already knows what they want," he says. "The reservation agent takes the confirmation number and books the room. It's a short call."

Thomson first allowed booking on the system last January and has yet to see evidence of credit card fraud. Besides, he suggests, any time you take a human being out of the equation, you eliminate the possibility of error or unscrupulousness. "I think this way is safer, because it's machines talking to machines."

Finally, consider replicating the database. At Wordsworth Books, Kharbanda chose to isolate the bookstore's internal network from the Internet as a safety measure. The inventory database for Web users is replicated on a regular basis from the database that store employees access. This involved some programming to create batch files and scripts, but Kharbanda prefers it from a security standpoint.

What the Future Holds

Boosting customer service and employee productivity are two big justifications for linking a database to a Web site, and gaining valuable experience is another. Adding this service is just one more stepping-stone in the technological evolution of how companies provides information access--which is fundamentally what you do all day long.

The advantage to this strategy is that it may involve combining two familiar technologies: databases and Web sites. Before long, however, many users will want to incorporate new technology into their sites. "Multimedia content is not just content, it's interaction," says Predrag Dizdarevic, vice president of research and development for Computer Associates in Islandia, NY. "Interaction brings new levels of complexity. The database has to deal with the complexity in a flexible way. Relational databases are unable to cope with that world."

When the time comes that house-hunters want to take virtual-reality tours of property, the multimedia information they'll access will be stored in an object-oriented database. As a result, knowledge gained today for deploying database information across the Web will be invaluable as the Web and databases both evolve. Learning the basics of providing those solutions will prepare you for tomorrow.

Howard Baldwin, based in Silicon Valley, has written about almost every computer platform at one time or another. He can be reached at howardb394@aol.com.