"Push" has plenty of promise but some hurdles to clear

A new generation of "push" software could help sales representatives find new prospects, alert field offices to sudden price changes and even make it easier for information systems managers to distribute software. But don't expect to roll it into production for corporate use any time soon.

A new generation of “push” software could help sales representatives find new prospects, alert field offices to sudden price changes and even make it easier for information systems managers to distribute software.

But don’t expect to roll it into production for corporate use any time soon. The technology is immature, the automated tools to manage it have yet to be developed and nobody knows how well it will scale to handle large numbers of users and amounts of data in a mission-critical environment.

It’s already happening at a wider level. Both Netscape and Microsoft are incorporating technologies into their Web offerings. Companies such as Marimba, with its Castanet and Bongo technologies, as well as PointCast, are already gaining a following worldwide. Microsoft only recently announced that PointCast is likely to be a “push” component of its Internet Explorer 4 enhancements. Netscape has made similar noises about PointCast. Marimba is looking at augmenting Sun’s Java language with Castanet and Bongo capabilities.

In New Zealand, Internet developer Bruce Simpson is using push cast his 7am news service ticker from his Aardvark Web site.

“These technologies won’t replace the Web as we know but will increase the range of user options,” says Simpson. There is little awareness of them in New Zealand, but they’re certainly suitable for time-critical technology.”

Simpson says his news ticker now appears on several hundred Web pages — including sites in the US — apart from his own site. “It reaches about 40,000 people — I could never hope to achieve that readership using traditional Web-based technology, waiting for peope to come to the site.”

Simpson says he has attracted quite a bit of interest from people wanting to use a private ticker to disseminate their own information, although no sales in this area have been confirmed.

“Push is less intrusive than email if you want to email everyone in your organisation. Email can unnecessary burden people with reading information which may not necessarily be relevant to them. They can make their own choice on whether to delve deeper with push technology.”

As Simpson’s experience shows, when push comes to shove it’s not all plain sailing. Some analysts, such as NetworkMCI systems analyst Matthew Soltis in Washington, say that easy plug-and-play tools aren’t there yet.

“The network bandwidth isn’t there yet. The solutions to do this are very costly.” But Soltis says he is confident that the potential benefits of push outweigh such problems.

For businesses, those benefits include the ability to collect information from corporate databases, intranets or the World Wide Web, customise it for users’ individual needs and send it to them automatically.

Such a “pushed” message could show up as an on-screen alert, a pop-up window or even as electronic mail or a fax. NationsBank, a North Carolina bank holding company, is piloting Wayfarer Communications’ Incisa to send corporate news company-wide without routing it through multiple email systems. NetworkMCI is beta-testing Verity’s IntelliServ to pluck information about competitors from a torrent of internal and external data and speed it to recipients who need it.

Push technology promises to eliminate many weaknesses that plague today’s Web products. Typically, a user “pulls” complete hypertext markup language pages to a Web browser from an external Web server or an intranet. That not only consumes a lot of network bandwidth, but it can require the user to do a time-wasting search for information. Power users could use pull tools to hunt for information, but they can drag back bad data or viruses along with usable data.

Push software, on the other hand, creates a central location on a server that gathers information, matches it to each user’s needs and automatically sends it to the user as needed.

PointCast’s namesake software, an early example of push technology, allowed users to choose the Web sites from which to draw updates, but it irked IS because it required a bandwidth-hogging permanent Internet connection to get the updates. (PointCast now offers an inside-the-firewall server to cache requests and replies and give IS more control over the information flow.)

It isn’t known how many New Zealanders are hooked into PointCast’s network, but those who do use it can incur the wrath of systems administrators concerned about bandwidth requirements.

Push technology could help companies improve customer service by quickly alerting workers to emergencies or problems. At Detroit Edison, webmaster Ed Boyd hopes Incisa can replace voicemail or email to send weather updates to utility employees who must work extra hours during storms. Unlike those other methods, which employees can claim they didn’t check, “I know the Incisa notice will have popped up on your desktop,” he says.

Incisa also eases a bandwidth strain caused by PointCast that had slowed Web access for employees. “Previously, we had something like 45 machines that would attempt to broadcast at the same time through the proxy server” to reach the PointCast service, Boyd says. With Incisa, “we have just one point of exit through the proxy server to pull in information that will later be pushed to users”. And Boyd says managing the system “doesn’t look like it’s going to be anything that will be totally unmanageable or unwieldy”.

At NetworkMCI, “if you miss information, you lose business,” Soltis says. His group has spent the past several years looking at a range of push products to find information about potential clients and speed the information to the right sales-people.

To find that information now, users at the communications software and services company must search through the intranet Web site. Soltis is very bullish on push technology but admits the existing products “are extremely immature. You need to do a great deal of programming to integrate them either with the Web or with email.”

A shortage of network bandwidth and network management tools is restricting most push solutions to relatively small text transmissions rather than video or animation, he says. But as customers expand their bandwidth and vendors improve network management tools, “I definitely do not think bandwidth will be a long-term concern.”

Another way to improve customer service and increase productivity is to use push software as a front end to legacy databases and outside information. Some push vendors are responding with powerful back-end tools that link their “push” servers to legacy databases. Mosaix, a Redmond systems integrator and software developer for call centres, hopes to do that with Channel Manager from Data-Channel.

Mosaix currently uses client-server development tools such as Powersoft’s Power-Builder and Microsoft Visual Basic to build the screens seen by call-centre employees, says Brian Moore, executive director of professional services. “Our developers are very encouraged by the prototype tools” from DataChannel, he says. The tools would allow them to customise what end users see on their screens at a central server rather than having to tweak and redistribute the client portion of the software on each user’s PC.

It remains to be seen whether push technology can grow up to distribute large amounts of data or software to thousands of users without overloading networks. Also left unanswered is how hard it will be for IS to manage the push servers and whether business and IS managers can create manageable, coherent flows of information that actually help their businesses make more money.

Incisa makes “very, very efficient” use of bandwidth by pushing small amounts of text to fewer than 100 workstations in a pilot, says Mitch Hadley, a vice-president in NationsBank’s strategic technology group. “But if we were to drop in a message to 1000, 2000, 3000 people, we don’t know what kind of impact it would have on the network,” he says.

Then there’s the question of whether IS, which already manages mail servers, Web servers, Notes servers and application servers, will also have to manage the servers that maintain lists of user profiles and dispatch software agents into the Web. Some early users say push technology could help IS managers better monitor the quality of data users receive.

With earlier pull technology, users could download a company form or procedure manual from a conventional intranet site, cut and paste it into a local file and keep using it even after it becomes outdated. But with push software, the most recent copy could be maintained at the server and sent automatically to users when they need it.

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