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A Marketing Director's Course in Server Basics
Before you sign the contract, be absolutely certain that your back-end technology is the best fit for your marketing strategy.
Posted Jan 15, 2001
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One goal of good network and system design is to consolidate all of the company's data into a single database.

The trend is obvious: Technology is becoming an essential part of marketing. This trend puts marketing managers at a distinct disadvantage. When you try to manage something you don't understand, sooner or later you will make a costly mistake, and your career will suffer for it.

Sure, you can do your homework, check out the vendors, look at their programs, ask a ton of questions and decide which programs seem most likely to help you streamline your marketing. But before you sign the contract, you will also want to be absolutely certain that the program's underlying technology is not going to make it impractical down the road.

You will need to get specific answers regarding the capacity, scalability, usability, reliability and compatibility of the systems you're hoping to buy. As always, you can't rely on the "don't worry--it will be fine" reassurances from system vendors. Even if they say they're using "standard technology," you can still end up being rudely surprised when you discover that you can't pass data from one of your systems to another without a major programming effort. As you attempt to get answers to your technical questions, you will immediately find yourself coping with technospeak.

"Sure, you can run this on your existing NT server, as long as you're using Service Pack 4," the vendor's technical person says to your IT manager. "Of course, that means you'll be using IIS."

"I've heard of NT, but what is the significance of Service Pack 4?" you ask. "Well, it enhances NT and IIS," he answers.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really answer your question. You need to know how all of the pieces fit together so you can effectively manage your company's Web site, intranet and marketing automation system. What you need is some background.

The key to smooth, efficient operation of your new marketing application is the server it runs on. So let's get started by defining a few server-related terms.

Hardware
A server is a computer on a network that manages network resources. The word server refers to both hardware and software. The hardware part is a very powerful version of your desktop PC. Computer companies that make hardware servers include Compaq, Dell, Hewlett Packard and IBM.

For example, one of Compaq's most powerful servers, the ProLiant 8500, has four Pentium chips and massive amounts of random-access memory (RAM)--2 to 8 gigabytes. (A gigabyte is a billion bytes.) The 8500 includes an array of four disk drives, each storing 4.3 gigabytes. This disk-based storage is expandable to 35.2 terabytes (yes, that's 32 trillion bytes of storage). You'll need all that memory if you want your marketing automation application to run quickly and smoothly.

Whichever hardware you choose, you must remember that the server has to be up and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you'll want to provide for redundancy. One way to do that is to "cluster" more than one server (using clustering software), so that if Server A gets too busy, Server B will take over, with the help of "load balancing" software. This will help you avoid the kinds of peak traffic situations that have crippled even the most sophisticated e-commerce players. It will also save you if one server crashes or if you need to take down a server to service it.

Operating Systems
Like your PC, servers have an operating system. Server operating systems include Windows NT, Windows 2000, Novell NetWare, different versions of Unix (SCO and Sun Solaris), and the always-up-and-coming Linux. Windows NT and Unix (mostly the Sun Solaris version) are currently battling for market dominance. A term you'll hear frequently in connection with server operating systems is Internet Information Server (IIS). IIS turns an NT-based PC into a machine that supports Web applications, including Netscape's SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol for secure e-commerce. The IIS software helps you set up a Web site, manage the content and analyze usage patterns.

The server operating system you choose will depend on what your IT people already have installed. You don't want to be accused of introducing a system that doesn't communicate easily with your company's other systems. Before you buy, find out what servers and software will be compatible with what your IT department is already running, including databases.

Server Types
A typical Internet server system includes a number of special purpose software servers: Web, database, e-mail and file transfer.

The HTTP (hypertext transport protocol) server serves up Web pages. HTTP is the communications protocol that transfers information from the World Wide Web to browsers.

A database transaction server processes database queries, including handling orders, purchases, changes, additions and deletions. If you're installing a marketing automation system, customer relationship management system or e-commerce system, there will be at least one database involved. Remember, transaction volume is an important factor when determining the computer size and speed you need.

Transactions take place in master databases. You'll have to determine which kinds of databases are being used in your old and new systems, and talk to your technical people about the scalability of those databases and their ability to interact with each other. One goal of good network and system design is to consolidate all of the company's data into a single database that will be used by all of the company's applications. Any new program that requires a separate database is a move in the wrong direction.

An SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) server provides outgoing e-mail capability. POP (Post Office Protocol) and the more advanced IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol) are incoming mail servers, allowing users to retrieve and download their mail.

File servers are used by people within an organization to store and retrieve files. Network file servers behave like shared remote disk drives. The file server's user management system allows administrators to set up and manage printers, programs, modems, workstations, software licenses, users and groups of users throughout a company's network.

All of these servers depend on TCP/IP, a protocol that allows one computer to talk to another, anywhere on the Internet. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) is connection-oriented and stream-oriented, providing for reliable communication over the packet-switched networks. IP (Internet Protocol) addresses are made up of four groups of numbers separated by dots, such as 207.335.64.23. The IP address allows the routers and servers to direct the messages as they travel from the source computer to the destination computer. Every server has to have an IP address before it can be recognized by another computer attached to the Internet. When a server or workstation is connected to the Internet all the time, via a T1 line or a cable modem, for example, its IP address is always the same. However, if you use a modem to connect to the Internet, each time you dial up, your IP address changes.

Assume that you can never learn fast enough. If you are doing your job right, at least 10 percent of your time will be spent researching and understanding technology. In my experience, if you want to stay at the top of the marketing heap, there's just no escaping it.

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