Start getting ready now for browser upgrade

Users are demanding it, Microsoft will force it, says Frank Hayes

Your IT shop is about to be forced into a technology refresh. You don't have a choice. You can't stop it. You can't put it off until the economy gets better. You can't scale it back. You don't even get to decide what products your users will move to.

And nasty as that may sound, you'll be a lot better off dealing with this refresh now — before it's totally out of your control.

The refresh: web browsers — in particular, the browsers that customers use to see your corporate websites.

Maybe that sounds trivial. Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari have been around for years. How tough could the transition to the new versions be?

Quite tough, says Imad Mouline. He's the CTO at Gomez, which tests websites to see how quickly and consistently they appear in a browser. A few weeks ago, he bent my ear about the challenges facing websites that get their content from multiple sources that only comes together at the user's browser — for example, online publications whose ads come from a third party.

With content coming from different servers that may be located in different parts of the world, users in different places may have different experiences of how fast a website loads and responds, even if they're using exactly the same kind of browser and computer, Mouline told me. Add in all the different browser and hardware possibilities, and user experience is all over the map.

OK, I thought, fair enough. But that's not something most corporate IT shops are much concerned with. When we set up web applications for our users, we control what browsers and machines they use. When we host corporate websites, we just have to make sure they've been tested with popular browsers and make sure we keep the servers running — right?

Wrong. According to Mouline, the new versions of IE, Firefox and Safari change those requirements.

As usual, the new browsers have "improvements" (some of which really are improvements) that mean websites may render differently. That's a test-and-tweak problem for web developers — no big deal for IT.

But the new generation also changes how browsers get their content. Older browsers made two connections to a server at a time; for example, an image and a JavaScript file could load in parallel.

The new browsers triple that to six connections per host.

So if your web servers are optimised for the number of connections you currently expect with peak traffic, they're about to get hammered as the new browsers arrive.

And it may not end with server configuration. Everything else in your infrastructure may require some rethinking to handle the extra connection load.

And that doesn't take into account new kinds of content, such as video and animation, that the new browsers make easier for web developers to use. Both the number of connections and the data load may jump.

If you're not prepared, you know exactly who will get the blame for your newly sluglike website.

Sounding more like a technology refresh now?

Yeah, it's a lousy time to vet your infrastructure for new problems — just when your budget and staff are facing a trim. It's a bad time for any project you don't have much control over. But like it or not, the refresh is coming.

So don't wait. Do it now. Today, less than 20% of web traffic comes from these new-wave browsers. But sometime before the end of 2008, Microsoft will begin pushing the new version of Internet Explorer to users. That's when the tsunami hits.

By then, you'd better be ready.

Otherwise, you'll find out just how nasty a technology refresh can be.

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Tags managementbrowsersupgradeInternet Explorer

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