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With Microsoft's Internet Services Network, Information's Just a Mouse Click Away.
By Mark A. R. Mitchell

For Internet service providers (ISPs), telecommunications service providers, cable network operators, and anyone else who is grappling with the challenge of how to deploy the best Internet services for hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses, one Internet address is key - that of Microsoft's recently enhanced and expanded Internet Services Network Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/isn/.

Within 24 hours of the appearance of a story on CNN about a grocery chain that takes shopping orders over the World Wide Web and then delivers the groceries to your home, traffic at the company's Web site surged to three times its usual volume. For many Internet service providers, this would pose a serious problem. Commerce Web servers are tuned to support a certain anticipated volume - and this kind of surge might, under other circumstances, have caused all kinds of problems - lost transactions, corrupted shopping carts, possibly an outright system failure.

But administrators at DIGEX, the ISP supporting this site, met the challenge with nonchalance. After all, DIGEX was supporting this Web site - and hundreds of others that it hosts - with a solution built on the Microsoft electronic commerce architecture. Its administrators knew just what to do to ensure uninterrupted service. In response to the grocer's sudden surge in traffic, they simply added an additional server to the network. Within 30 minutes, they had remotely initialized the new server, completely replicated and distributed the grocer's Web site, and linked it to the grocer's commerce database. As traffic continued to skyrocket, administrators added yet another server, again repli-cating the contents of the Web site and distributing the traffic among servers in Washington, D.C., and Cupertino, Calif.

When traffic finally peaked at three times the normal volume, the site was handling requests perfectly.

The drama of the Internet
Who says the Internet is not alive with drama? Every day, around the world, ISPs, telcos, and cable network operators are facing just these sorts of challenges and striving to provide the best services they can to customers.

And each day they must redouble their efforts, for both the opportunities and the technologies are changing with unprecedented rapidity. The challenges they face are a far cry from those faced by an Information Technology (IT) manager in even a large corporation. With hundreds, sometimes even thousands of commercial Web sites to manage, ISPs, telcos, and cable network operators are in constant need of information and tools to satisfy their clients.

Competition, too, is fierce in the marketplace, and the lines that once distinguished an ISP from a telco from a cable network operator are growing blurred as a result of technological evolutions. "Traditional" ISPs - as though a tradition could be established in so short a time - are beginning to offer IP-based telephony services. Telephone companies are increasingly offering Internet services. And don't forget cable network service providers: They can opt to offer both.

So where does a cutting edge service provider go in search of useful information about enhancing the services they can offer? A book? A journal? They're already out of date by the time the ink dries. No, the place to go for worthwhile information about Internet services is the Internet itself. One place in particular, the Internet Services Network site on microsoft.com, was recently redesigned and expanded to make information accessibility even simpler.

Serving the service providers
ISN has always been an online resource designed to provide information about Microsoft's Internet-related products, technologies, and services. But ISN goes beyond tips, tricks, and downloads. For the service providers who routinely visit the site, one of ISN's main attractions has always been its ability to stay on top of what is going on in the industry.

"Staying on top of technology and product strategy is hard in our emerging industry," says David George, director of strategic business development at Data Return. "Our customers are highly visible Internet businesses and large corporations, running hosted electronic commerce applications on the Microsoft platform. These customers expect a high level of service from our organization. For this reason, keeping our staff aware of technological trends is a mission-critical priority for our business, and that's one of the reasons ISN is so important to us."

But after a year of expansion and evolution, the site had become a kind of Internet in miniature. With such a great amount of information, finding the right information had become increasingly difficult. "We needed a navigation scheme that would make it easy for visitors to find any type of content that their industry or job function required," explains Paul Shustak, Web presence marketing manager for Microsoft's Internet Customer Unit, which publishes ISN.

Through focus groups, Web surveys, and usability tests, the ISN team learned just what ISN users wanted to see expanded and enhanced. Visitors today can find even more technical content, including software tools, deployment guides, white papers, and case studies, as well as added news and information on industry trends. But the team also learned that they should not change what worked. As its tag line indicates - Information and Tools for Commercial Network Operators and ISPs - the site retains its industry-oriented structure.

Yet the team also learned that visitors from each of these industries wanted information about Internet services and opportunities that were industry independent. So, the new ISN includes numerous Commercial Network Solution areas - including areas on IP Telephony, Wireless Data, Internet Access, and Commercial Hosting, with more planned for the future. These new sections help service providers in all industries explore the business possibilities that are rapidly emerging in these areas.

Best-of-breed solution
Service providers will appreciate the fact that the new ISN is a showcase for the very technologies it touts. The site uses a bleeding-edge Web publishing platform built on a foundation of Microsoft® Windows NT Server® 4.0 with Microsoft Internet Information Server, Microsoft SQL Server® 7.0, Microsoft Visual InterDev™ 6.0, Active Server Page technologies, and Dynamic HTML. This powerful publishing solution dramatically streamlines the processes associated with the creation, publication, and management of content - which means more timely information for visitors.

The platform not only speeds up the creation of ISN's pages, but - because it provides pre-press rendering services - it lets visitors customize the site by using one of seven content filters. A user can, for instance, filter the News section to hide all articles tagged as telco- or cable-related and see only items that are ISP-related. Or, if she likes, the visitor can filter the ISN site to see only that information pertaining to a particular commercial network solution - IP Telephony, for instance.

"The new ISN Web site is a reflection of our commitment to providing our customers with easy access to the detailed information they need in order to deploy the next generation of Internet services to support their customers," says Thomas Koll, vice president of Microsoft's Internet Customer Unit.

"This is a competitive environment and things change very quickly," he adds. "ISN is going to help our customers, and the businesses they support, stay in the forefront."

Mark A. R. Mitchell is a freelance writer based in
West Chester, Pa.



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Last Updated: March 8, 1999