aims to be the place to go to get the tools information and inspiration to tackle
all of your outdoor endeavors. They offer a variety of outdoor clothing and
equipment and a full range of information and entertainment for those with an
interest in outdoor activities.
interview with David P. Geller, Altrec's CTO, was conducted by TEC's Penny Catz.
Mr. Geller was previously Director of News & Entertainment Engineering at Starwave
Corporation He has experience in engineering large-scale, high-traffic, complex
Internet sites and applications. His accomplishments include engineering oversight
of ABCNews.com, TheStreet.com, ESPN SportZone, NBA.com, NFL.com, Nascar.com,
OutsideOnline and Mr.Showbiz. He has also successfully helped to develop three
commercial software titles and has personally authored several popular shareware
applications. Mr. Geller is a contributing author to Windows 95 Unleashed,
Special Addition Using CGI, The Java Handbook, Java - The Complete Reference,
and Web Developer magazine.
On the technology side, what kind of hardware does your site run on?
We have a number of load-balanced Linux-based Pentium servers, with the Apache
webserver. We also have an NT box that runs some special services, and a separate
server running SQL Server.
What are your growth plans?
Geller: With this architecture it's easy for us to add additional servers.
When we need to we'll add round robin routing for balance.
Where do your servers live?
Geller: We have co-location hosting with Exodus.
Co-location means that you have to be responsible for all system and database
administration. That's a labor cost that you might have been able to avoid with
a different kind of hosting arrangement.
Geller: Maybe, but there's no way I'd let some third party be responsible
for my data.
What about backend tools?
Geller: We use SQL Server 6.5 as our database engine and Java for all our
Just a few years ago Java was looked on as a language that was great in principle,
but possibly not ready for prime time. I take it you feel the language has put
that reputation behind it?
Geller: Absolutely. It's a clear and portable language. Most important,
we can read someone in to our code faster than with any alternative. And it's
also a faster language to learn. I'm sure its possible to write bad code with
Java, but compared with C++ it's an absolute gem.
You said that the backend tools were written in Java. What about your commerce
software, your chat system, things like that; what products do you use?
We've written it all. It's all Java.
Isn't that a big investment for a startup? Why not work with one of the commercial
Geller: The perception that a commercial package would be faster to bring
up rests on some assumptions that don't hold for a company like Altrec. We need
to have a lot of control of look and feel and features. We'll succeed because
we can take advantage of all the power of the Web to create an optimal environment
for our customers. Using commercial packages means doing a lot of customization,
and a lot of clumsy workarounds, to get what we want. Otherwise we'd end up
with a cookie-cutter site that wouldn't stand out. Almost all of the major E-commerce
sites have rolled their own; many even have custom-made web servers. If they
do use commercial software, they'll take individual products and cobble together
a solution, rather than buy a single product that supposedly will do everything
they need. That's the only way to get control and scalability.
So finding the talent to do the work wasn't a problem?
Geller: Not in the Bay Area. There's a great deal of talent out here. We've
put together a super team.
What have you done that wouldn't have been possible with a commercial package?
Geller: A lot of it is in the architecture. Our systems are very modular
but work together well. Many of our pages are dynamic, and we can use all the
information we can gather to tailor them to the customer's interests.
What technology are you using for dynamic page generation? CGI?
Geller: We've using servelets. That gives us a lot of power. For example,
should you need to use our Customer Service area there's a servelet that lets
the Customer Service people drive your browser, to take you exactly where you
need to be.
Are you committed to never buying off-the-shelf software?
Geller: Not at all. In fact, we've gotten large enough that we recognized
the need for an ERP system. So we've just started hired a company to help us
choose one. I'm sorry we didn't know about TEC though.
Thanks. We know the folk you're working with and they'll do a great job for
you. Let's go back to E-commerce software. Is there anyone who you think should
be using the commercial packages?
Geller: Sure. They're a great way to start small, if success on the Web
isn't going to make or break your business.
What about a large company that's just getting started in E-commerce. Should
they also take the roll-your-own approach?
Geller: No, the politics and inertia probably don't work well for that.
The best bet there is to hire a boutique development house that can build a
system from a mixture of some commercial packages and its own tools. The critical
consideration there is to make sire that everything is extremely well documented,
and that the architecture is extremely modular.
Would you say that development on the web is different from other IT projects
you've been involved with?
Geller: Definitely. People talk about web time (See TEC News Analysis article:
Now Legal" November 2nd, 1999) but it's a real phenomenon. Most of
our projects only last three or four weeks, and it isn't always clear when we
start what the technology requirements will be. That means I spend a lot of
time managing expectations.
That sounds like the stressful part of the day. What's the best?
Geller: The best part is watching the site grow, educating the other members
of the team about how technology works, and seeing our customers have successful
and happy experiences.
Geller points up the dependence on a fast moving and highly capable development
team for any new venture that is wholly Internet based. Larger companies, with
existing brand names and channels, including pre-existing websites, may be able
to take an approach that depends more, as Mr. Geller suggested, on third party
software and designer/integrators. However, the corollary is that once the E-commerce
venture gets moving it will have to be able to move at the same speed as its
upstart competitors - companies like Altrec - to grab and maintain market share
on the Web.
companies wondering whether to commit to Java should take Mr. Geller's comments
on that language to heart. His observations that the language offers both power
and quick read-in make it worthy of a serious internal study and pilot project.