How To Define Internet Computing

What exactly is Internet computing? Many people think they know, but they are surprised to learn that they don't. Are you one of the select few who has a grasp of the subject?

Retailers today face a competitive marketplace with unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Increasing labor costs. Blurring of market segmentation. Reduced customer loyalty. You know the list. But, now there is a whole new set of challenges brought on by the Internet:

  • Retailers are being "dot-commed" right out of their markets.
  • Price visibility is allowing customers instant access to the lowest cost merchant.
  • Manufacturers and new competitors are removing some retailers from the supply chain altogether.
  • Online auctions have fundamentally changed the way merchandise is sold and purchased. This list continues to grow as people think of more and more ways to leverage the Internet.

E-Business Or Out Of Business
It is a new world. For brick-and-mortar retailers in particular, the Internet is creating enormous disruption. But, it is also presenting unprecedented opportunities for those who understand the use, implications, and terminology of Internet technologies, and for those who move quickly and intelligently to become an e-business themselves. Increasingly, the choice facing retailers is simple: it's e-business or out of business.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as deciding to become an e-business. Terms like e-business, e-commerce, Web-deployed, Internet-enabled, customer relationship management, and the like all seem to have different meanings to each retailer and software vendor. For retailers, one fundamental term that must be clearly understood to succeed, is the true meaning of the words "Internet computing."

Why? Because the differences between true Internet computing, and the faux offerings that mimic the look of true Internet computing, are subtle to the untrained eye. However, they are dramatic in the capabilities and benefits they provide.

Defining Internet Computing
Internet computing is the foundation on which e-business runs. It is the only architecture that can run all facets of business, from supplier collaboration and merchandise purchasing, to distribution and store operations, to customer sales and service. Internet computing is the only architecture that supports all information flows and processes over the Internet — providing access to all applications. With Internet computing, all a user needs is a standard Web browser and security clearance.

The Internet computing model represents a fundamental shift from the traditional client/server enterprise application model. The four-walled efficiency that was once the goal of monolithic enterprise resource planning implementations — known as business process redesign (BPR) — has been replaced. The new environment is one in which economic gains are a result of systems efficiencies and collaboration across the extended network of customers, retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers.

Shift In Focus
There are three tiers in true Internet computing. These three tiers provide the benefit of centralized data that supports a unified view of the retailer's financial, human resources, inventory, logistics, trading partner, and customer information. The business logic at the next layer accesses and transacts the data. The user interface is a simple, non-proprietary Web browser. No complexity resides on the users' device, which can be anything from a PC to a mobile phone, or even a uniquely purposed mobile unit.
(Note: A unique "tool set" that allows writing in multiple languages allows Web deployment functionality to occur within the application server.)

An Internet computing architecture provides:

  • universal access to any person with a browser
  • unified views of critical data across the enterprise
  • scalability to support retailers of any size
  • flexibility and agility that allows retailers to quickly implement new business rules
  • lower total cost of ownership resulting from simplified IT administration and the adoption of self-service applications
  • streamlined communication processes and simplified distribution of critical business information across the enterprise.

What Internet Computing Is Not
The most common misnomer equated to Internet computing is "Web-deployed," meaning a self-service application that allows a particular transaction to occur through a browser. For example, checking the status of a UPS delivery is a Web-deployed application conducting a pre-defined task. For some casual users of applications, that's sufficient. But Internet computing is more than that. It is about deploying all business applications — for casual and power users — across the Internet, using the most streamlined architecture available.

To appreciate the benefits of Internet computing, it's useful to compare and contrast the alternative architectures — including two-tier, three-tier with proprietary user interface, and four-tier. Most IT professionals are familiar with the two-tier alternatives and understand the drawbacks of each. In fact, the desktop administration headaches featured by the fat client version of two-tier architecture are what precipitated the move to the Internet computing model. The fat server version, while causing a less painful desktop administration headache, still requires vendor-specific software to be installed for the client.

Avoiding Upgrade Problems
Internet computing, which grew out of two-tier architecture, supports scalability at a much lower cost. There is, however, an alternate three-tier architecture to Internet computing. But, it does not provide the benefits of Internet computing. The key area that distinguishes the two models is the client layer. The alternative includes a proprietary presentation layer. Oftentimes, this user interface is on a different upgrade path or is unique to particular application versions. So, when the process to upgrade applications occurs, another upgrade must occur throughout all the desktops. While this alternate model offers a much thinner client when compared to the two-tier fat client, it fails to provide the low-cost administration benefits of Internet computing.

Avoid Additional Complexity
Finally, there is the four-tiered environment, which can give the illusion of Internet computing, because users can access information through a browser interface. But, it still distributes complexity throughout the IT system. In this option, users have access to a limited number of predefined pieces of information over the Web. However, the IT staff accomplishes this by creating an additional layer of complexity through servers that convert proprietary applications (not based on Internet standards). This allows users access through a browser. This fails to lower the overall cost of the IT environment and lacks the flexibility of open Internet standards. Moreover, it adds additional burdens to network performance.

Identifying True Internet Computing Capabilities
Given the urgency for software vendors to adapt to the age of the Internet, marketing language and high-tech buzzwords often fail to communicate what exactly is being offered. Retailers can ask three questions to help determine whether the applications hold true Internet computing benefits:

  1. Can all users access all applications with only a browser?
  2. Was the application originally designed on top of the Web server, rather than having Web functionality bolted on later?
  3. Can the application handle XML directly?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then the application in question will deliver the benefits of true Internet computing.

Success In The New Millennium
People today should embrace Internet computing. With the Age of the Internet well under way, the need for retailers to transform into e-businesses is increasingly apparent. Embracing true Internet computing is the way to compete in the new millennium — to expand into new markets, improve extended enterprise efficiencies, and attract and retain customers. It's either that or getting "dot-commed."

Brian Ladyman, Oracle Corporation