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Altrec Takes E-commerce to Extremes

Written By: P. Catz
Published On: December 1 1999

Company Overview

Altrec.com 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

This 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.

TEC: On the technology side, what kind of hardware does your site run on?

Geller: 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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: Where do your servers live?

Geller: We have co-location hosting with Exodus.

TEC: 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.

TEC: What about backend tools?

Geller: We use SQL Server 6.5 as our database engine and Java for all our tool development.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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?

Geller: We've written it all. It's all Java.

TEC: Isn't that a big investment for a startup? Why not work with one of the commercial packages?

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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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.

TEC: 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: "Webtime 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.

TEC: 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.

Analysis

Mr. 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.

Any 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.

 
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