As the sun rose on Omaha, Neb., last Tuesday morning, 42 traders confabbed on the floor of the brokerage firm Ameritrade, ready for battle. By the end of that grueling day, the top broker had executed a heroic 442 trades. Nice work, but nothing compared with the action in the next room. There, a rack of workstations had calmly processed 3,600 orders, all placed over the Internet. And that was in the first hour of trading.

Imagine the frenzy at Charles Schwab & Co., the nation's largest online brokerage house, as it attempted to handle the siege of 1.5 million customer...

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