Shopping Comes Alive With Rich Internet Applications

Mike Afergan, CTO, Akamai

How are today's most successful retailers creating online shopping experiences that rival those in the real world? The key lies in Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) that drive more personalized, interactive online shopping experiences.

Based in sophisticated technologies such as Macromedia Flash, Flex and AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), these applications enable rich, dynamically generated content to be delivered to consumers all over the world. This content can include high quality video and audio, powerful search and sizing tools, and enhanced shopping cart functionality that make shopping online easy and intuitive.

With the adoption of broadband Internet in the home (more than 68 percent of U.S. households now enjoy broadband access), the fundamental Web experience is evolving to become more interactive, and RIAs are playing a significant role in what's commonly referred to as "Web 2.0" - a more interactive, dynamic Internet experience. According to Gartner, by 2010, at least 60 percent of new application development projects will include RIA technology, and at least 25 percent of those will rely primarily on RIAs.

But despite the proliferation of broadband in the home, significant challenges face companies who are using RIAs to create more dynamic, interactive shopping experiences. The greatest issue, of course, is site performance. Static content - such as text and images served "as is" from a cache to a requesting browser - place a relatively small demand on the origin server, and can be delivered fairly quickly. But as the level of dynamic content - that which is assembled based on information from the site visitor, supply chain/inventory queries, geolocation data, cookies from prior visits, etc. - rises, site performance and the quality of the user experience begin to degrade.

In real time, any consumer-specific information entered into these applications is passed back to the Web infrastructure to enable interaction, further personalization and compelling marketing offers. For instance, consumers can be presented with geographic- and demographic-specific content, content that is tailored to preferences they indicate, surveys and contests and constantly updated content such as stock quotes, sales promotions and news feeds, to name a few. Add in unpredictable Internet traffic and the demands placed on site infrastructure by heavy shopping periods, and availability becomes a real issue.

A rich interactive application itself is a download that must be delivered by the Web infrastructure. While most companies point to the small file size associated with the subsequent data calls, the back-and-forth interactions between the consumer and the Web infrastructure are themselves subject to the performance and reliability vagaries of the Internet. For instance, while AJAX reduces the delay in the interaction between the browser and the display of a page when new data is retrieved from a Web server, an AJAX implementation suffers from the same issues that afflict traditional Web application implementations using browsers as their user interface.

There are two commonly accepted strategies for retailers who want to ensure reliably high performance of RIAs. The first is to physically build out a centralized data center that is capable of handling peak traffic - even on the busiest shopping days of the year. While this solution solves some of the performance challenges inherent in RIAs, it does not address Internet unpredictability and outages that can impact site availability. Nor does it necessarily speed the delivery of dynamically assembled pages, as both cached and user-generated data must be delivered from the origin.

The more successful strategy - used by such retailers as Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria's Secret and others - is to deploy an outsourced solution that addresses all of the most critical issues: capacity, performance, security and reliability. These solutions-like Akamai's Dynamic Site Solutions - combine a global server infrastructure with sophisticated algorithms that help retail Web sites achieve a high level of speed, scalability, availability and control without building out a costly centralized infrastructure.

To learn more about the challenges of RIAs and what leading retailers are doing to overcome them and maximize performance, Click here to download the Forrester and Akamai on-demand Webcast: Optimizing Rich Internet Application Performance.

About Mike Afergan
Mike Afergan is the Chief Technology Officer of Akamai. He is a veteran of Akamai's distinguished engineering organization, having joined Akamai in 1999, and has served in various roles within Akamai's Engineering and Product Management departments.

Dr. Afergan has a distinguished academic research career, including research at both MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science and Harvard. His research focuses on the areas of networking and distributed systems as well as game theory. Prior to Akamai, he ran a software consulting company for more than 10 years, working for a variety of companies ranging from Bose and Fidelity to start-ups, and has authored several books and trade magazine articles. His work has won him several industry accolades, and he is an invited speaker at industry and academic forums.
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