Web servers tuned for e-commerce

Monday Aug 17th 1998 by Michael Jay Tucker
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All of the Web servers involved offer fundamentally the same functions. But they differ in sometimes ostensibly tiny, but frequently significant, ways. The trick, then, is in knowing the nuances and matching them to your own business requirements.

In 1994, Banc One of Columbus, Ohio, found itself doing business on the World Wide Web. It wasn't fun. "This was back when Netscape was focused on browsers, IBM didn't recognize what was happening, and as for Microsoft, the Internet hadn't even shown up on their radar screen," remembers Steve Dieringer, Banc One's vice president and group product manager.

Banc One is a bank holding and services company. Depending on which report you read, it is the ninth or tenth largest banking services company in the country. It got into the Internet because one of its clients, RoweCom of Cambridge, Mass., wanted to develop an Internet-based subscription service for the library community. RoweCom would manage the actual service; Banc One would offer the banking side of the equation. "When the libraries order," explains Dieringer, "we take the money out of the libraries' accounts, and transfer it to the publishers'."

The difficulty was in the actual transaction--in the actual mechanics of placing the order from a Web browser; transferring that order from a Web server to the vendor's order-entry and processing system; tracking state, local, and federal taxes; calculating shipping charges; interfacing with accounting systems; and on and on and on. Oh, and the Web-based system had to support EDI over the Internet in the process and provide access to legacy systems at the bank and the vendors. "Which," says Dieringer, "can be kind of ugly."

For at least part of the problem, Banc One was able to go to Open Market of Cambridge, Mass. Open Market offers a suite of commerce-oriented Web software, including a commerce-oriented Web server and OM-Transact, software that automates the back-end processing of Internet commerce. "Open Market was talking about taxes, centralized administration, and distributed content before almost anyone else," notes Dieringer. "Back then, and even now, almost no one else is talking industrial-strength Internet commerce. Everyone is talking store-front and credit cards."

And that, of course, is the rub. Almost everywhere you look, vendors are offering commerce-oriented Web products. Just in terms of electronic-commerce servers, there are now product offerings from several different sources--including BroadVision, IBM, Mercantec, Microsoft, Netscape, Open Market, Oracle, and so on.

All of the Web servers involved offer fundamentally the same functions. But they differ in sometimes ostensibly tiny, but frequently significant, ways. The trick, then, is in knowing the nuances and matching them to your own business requirements.

On sale now!

At first glance, and even after a second or third look, it can be very difficult to tell commerce-oriented Web servers apart. Basically, they're all the same thing--that is, Web server software optimized for on-line shopping. "The Web servers don't seem to be the most striking technology," notes market analyst Chris Stevens of the Boston-based Aberdeen Group. Stevens thinks the real question to ask vendors is what distinguishes their products from any commodity Web server.

Indeed, with some effort, you can find distinguishing features among the various commerce-oriented Web servers. They'll differ according to the nature of the business for which they're optimized (specifically, whether they lean toward retail or business-to-business commerce) and their approach to transaction processing behind the scenes.

The least technical, but perhaps most important, aspect of evaluating a commerce server is simply to determine what kind of business you're in. That can be a bit more difficult than it sounds. "You have to first determine your specific business goals," explains Erica Rugullies, a research analyst at the Hurwitz Group consultancy in Newton, Mass. "You need to be able to plan for it and budget for it. And know whether you want to build or to buy."

Thus, for example, do you intend to do on-line retailing, where you're selling directly to the consumer, or will your main purpose be business-to-business commerce? If it's the latter, then are you committed to electronic data interchange that collection of data standards for business-to-business communications that are now gradually moving to the Internet? If so, you may have just eliminated several servers from consideration--like Microsoft's Merchant Server, for instance--at least for now. "And for a lot of people that is a real show-stopper right there," says Andy Parker, president of Mercantec of Lisle, Ill., which sells a suite of commerce-oriented software that can fit on top of a variety of other Web servers, such as Microsoft's, Netscape's, and so on.

AT A GLANCE:

Banc One

The company: A bank services and holding company based in Columbus, Ohio.

The problem: How to provide banking functions for a Web-based book-ordering and sales operation.

The solution: Deploy a commerce-oriented Web server using back-office transaction-processing software from Open Market.

The IT infrastructure: Web clients access an Alpha processor-based NT server from Digital Equipment.

But if you're purely interested in retail, then EDI may not particularly matter. "EDI is a necessity in any robust environment," notes Banc One's Dieringer. "But if you're a mom-and-pop shop, why bother?"

So let's assume that you're looking to conduct retail electronic commerce. Now, how large are you? How many transactions do you expect to make on any given day? If you're very small, or just trying out Web-based e-commerce as an experiment--or even if you're large and simply don't wish to invest a small fortune in Web technology--then you may not want to own a Web server of any sort. It may serve you far better to go to any one of the large number of Internet store-front providers--such as BBN of Cambridge, Mass., and AT&T--which will host your store, handle everything right up to billing, and then charge you on a per-transaction basis. Incidentally, both BBN and AT&T are Open Market customers.

But, assume instead that your retail site is large enough to warrant an investment in Web technology. How do you choose? One really strong evaluation criterion is cost. Another is standards. "Our sense was that in doing Internet marketing, we wanted to use a standardized product," says Kenneth Freidman, president of Corporate Micros in New York City. "We felt that Microsoft is here now, and will be there tomorrow."

Corporate Micros is a systems integrator, consultancy, and Web-site developer. The company is using Microsoft's commerce-oriented Web server, Merchant Server, to give its clients Web commerce facilities. Merchant Server is an NT product that Microsoft obtained when it acquired EShop. The good news is that Merchant Server has the resources and the immense market presence of Microsoft behind it. The bad news is that the product is not cross-platform. You're not going to run it on a UNIX device.

There are other drawbacks. Because it was acquired rather than developed in house, Merchant Server does not yet enjoy the support of all of Microsoft's Web tools. It isn't supported, for example, by the company's newly announced Visual InterDev (a.k.a. "Black Bird"), though that's scheduled to change sometime this year.

Moreover, Merchant Server has a "shopping basket" into which buyers place their purchases prior to order. That's not unusual. Most servers do. What is odd is that when Microsoft acquired the product, it intended shopping basket to be a client-side process. That is, the cart would be an ActiveX application that the users would download over the Net and run on their own systems.

But that opened up a host of problems. For example, if the connection to the server is broken--if, for instance, the buyer simply decides to log off--then there could be complications in the vendor's bookkeeping. An inventory system might, for example, show that an item had been removed from stock, but the checkout system wouldn't actually have completed the transaction.

All of which gave potential users a shock--and sent Microsoft scurrying back to the drawing board. "We had big plans for a client-side cart," says Derrick Bazlen, program manager at Microsoft. "But we've changed our plans." Today, Merchant Server supports server-side carts as well. And in fact, notes Bazlen, "at least 99.9% of our users have them."

But the client-side cart left some developers edgy about Merchant Server. What hasn't helped matters is that Merchant Server's shopping basket, whether on the client or the server, is a black box. "Microsoft hasn't published the details of the structure for it," says Freidman. "It's just a data blob." That's supposed to change in the near future, but for the moment, developers can't get at it to customize it or merge it more completely with their applications.

Still, for Freidman and Corporate Micros, that's all beside the point. Whatever Merchant Server lacks in terms of cross-platform functionality and unpublished APIs, it more than makes up for everywhere else. Freidman says that Microsoft's e-commerce Web server is flexible and easy to use and program: Useful store templates are included that can be quickly customized for a variety of purposes. It's also relatively inexpensive. "It is really impressive that we can develop a store for $50,000 or less," notes Freidman, "instead of a few hundred thousand dollars."


Explore your options

There are those--even within the retail market--who find Microsoft's Merchant Server limiting. The fact that it is restricted to NT machines frightens off some users--either because NT represents an unknown to them, or because they run operations larger than can be comfortably supported by NT clusters (which remain, at best, somewhat theoretical), or because they simply find the restriction too limiting.

AT A GLANCE:

Fine Line Features

The company: A producer and distributor of specialized films.

The problem: How to set up a Web site that could market movie-related merchandise with a minimum of development effort.

The solution: Use Mercantec's commerce software and farm out the actual Web server hardware to a third party.

The IT infrastructure: Clients access product offerings by using a SPARC-based workstation running SunOS.

One company that represents that last position is Fine Line Features of New York City. "We are a division of New Line Cinema," explains Nevin Shalit, director of new media products. "We both distribute and develop specialized films. For instance, we released Robert Altman's The Player."

Shalit needed to set up a Web-based commerce server from which Fine Line could sell merchandise tied to its movies--T-shirts, hats, posters, and so on. He had two seemingly contradictory requirements. First, his Web server had to require almost no development effort on his part. "We were looking for something that was almost shrink-wrapped," he notes. "We were not prepared to recreate anything that already existed."

Yet, it also had to be flexible enough to handle the notoriously short shelf life of movie-related products. Older products must be flushed out of the system quickly, for instance, in order to make room for items tied to newer movies. Moreover, movie-themed products are by nature novelties, and that means their promotion must in turn be novel. Such products stop selling once their market, or their Web page, grows stale.

In the end, Shalit settled on a Netscape server running Mercantec commercial products. "It is very easy to use," he notes. "But it also gives the flexibility I need." In particular, the Mercantec software lets Shalit change his site frequently, and in any way he likes. "A lot of these systems don't give you the creative freedom you need to make the site look the way you want it," he says. "You have to use their cookie-cutter approach."

Beyond flexibility, however, there are other issues. BroadVision, for instance, includes among the distinguishing features of its commerce Web server the ability to embed a company's business rules into its Web pages. "For example, suppose you want to put an ad on your Web site, but you don't know which of your ads you wish to run until you know something about the customer," says Michael Kennedy, senior director of marketing at BroadVision. "If the reader's over 21, you may want to present a beer ad. If not, then Cola."

BroadVision can obtain this sort of information by presenting the reader with questionnaires and then automatically placing the appropriate ads in the correct position. It can also keep track of what pages a reader has already selected and then place ads accordingly. For instance, if a reader has chosen to remain chiefly in sports-related pages, BroadVision will display sports-related ads.

Open for business (to business)

But suppose you want to do business-to-business Web-based commerce. You want your suppliers to have access to your database of needs, and your corporate customers to be able to directly touch base with your inventory--the sort of electronic commerce, in other words, where the money that exchanges hands gets very big, very fast.

If so, then you can still use retail-oriented Web servers like Microsoft's Merchant Server. But other vendors --IBM, Netscape, and Oracle among them--seem to be at least as interested in the business-to-business world as they are in the consumer side of e-commerce. And they might be the better bet for you. "We are really trying to go after the business-to-business market," says Andres Espineira, director of product marketing in commercial applications for Netscape. "We're trying to leverage our expertise in EDI, and we're working with GE." (One of the pioneers of EDI, General Electric remains one of its most effective users.)

In addition, says Espineira, Netscape's Commercial Applications, including its Merchant System commerce-oriented Web server, are more adaptable to business-to-business transactions than Microsoft's corresponding product. Take browsing, says Espineira. "Microsoft's products assume that you're browsing for products in a store," he says. "But how often do corporate buyers shop that way? They don't browse for products. They want a list of options."

Moreover, says Espineira, Netscape is working to give its Merchant System users the ability to impose business rules on purchases, set discount schedules, and so on. "We think that it is in business-to-business that you're going to see the money move the most."

Will encryption wreck the Net?

Security has been one of the top issues of e-commerce on the Web. Businesses have responded by encrypting more and more of their Web traffic. But encryption is by nature a demanding, number-crunching application. And that's the problem. "There is now so much stuff being encrypted on the Web that sites are slowing to a crawl," notes Mark Collet, Internet commerce program and strategy manager for Digital Equipment in Maynard, Mass. "We're getting calls all the time from clients who have set up a system based on PCs, and they're saying 'Wow! It worked at first, but now we can't handle the load.'"

So will encryption break the Net? Perhaps not. There are at least two possible solutions.

The first is simply to have much more powerful systems at your Web site. Digital for example, argues that encryption's burden is an excellent reason to go with the company's Alpha-processor NT servers. And at least two other companies--Rainbow Technologies of Irvine, Calif., and Vasco Data Security of Lombard, Ill.--have announced cryptographic accelerator boards that use processors specially designed for handling encryption. The purpose of such boards, which plug into a PCI slot, is to off- load the computer intensive encryption task from your server's main processor, similar to how video accelerator cards off-load graphics processing.

The other solution is to be smarter about what you choose to encrypt. You may not need to encrypt an entire order form, for example, just the financial details. "People are starting to realize that they have to be selective about what they want to encrypt," says Chuck Bryan, product marketing manager in the Network Solutions Marketing Group of the RS/6000 division at IBM. "People have discovered they've been overly safe."

The retail or business-to-business decision notwithstanding, the other issue that IT managers face with commerce-oriented Web servers isn't so much the servers themselves as what lies behind them. The servers are relatively simple compared with the technology required to link them to the larger enterprise--its databases, accounting systems, and shipping room.

This means two things. First, there's now a pressing need for middleware to connect Web sites to legacy systems and relational databases. This is one reason why companies ranging from relatively young Precise Software Solutions of Braintree, Mass., to established giants like Computer Associates of Islandia, N.Y., are now firmly in the Web middleware business.

Browse the glass house

Furthermore, several of the Web server vendors are now offering their products as part of much bigger architectures, almost network operating environments, which extend from the browsers to the glass house. IBM, for instance, offers its products as part of a larger Web-oriented Net.Commerce environment. Netscape makes its servers and browsers part of a system that includes ORB-based middleware solutions. And, most recently, when Oracle introduced its commerce-oriented server, code-named Apollo but introduced as Merchant System, it positioned the product as part of a larger Network Computing Architecture. "Apollo is actually a cartridge that plugs into the NCA," explains Robert Fleming, senior product manager on Project Apollo for Oracle.

The second thing that the back end of Web commerce means for IT people is transaction processing--that is, the actual processing of sales once they're made. And, as with connectivity middleware, there's been a boom in Web-oriented transaction technology. In some cases, the Web server vendors are offering it themselves. Microsoft, for instance, has recently introduced its Transaction Server, which has applications in both Web-oriented commerce and elsewhere in the corporation.

Others, though, are turning to a variety of third parties to provide their transaction services. InterWorld Technology Ventures of New York City, for instance, provides both back-office and middleware functions in the company's Oasis framework.

Open Market, meanwhile, began as a Web server vendor, but now almost entirely focuses on its back-office technology. The company's OM-Transact, which resides on one or more servers, takes orders and other information through a firewall that connects to the Web. A front section of OM-Transact, known as the Front Host, then deals with the actual transactions, including sales tax, postal issues, and so on. The Front Host then connects through a second firewall to an even more secure area, called the Back Host, which handles the actual financial transactions.

Finding the right match

Thus, even though commerce-oriented Web servers do essentially the same thing--serve up Web pages and take orders in some secure fashion--there are distinguishing features. Some lend themselves more to retail than business-to-business. Some are easier to use than others. All offer a choice of back-end processing and middleware features.

Unfortunately, then, this means that your choice of a commerce-oriented Web server isn't so much a technical decision as it is a matchmaking process. You have to determine precisely what you want to do on the Web, and precisely how you want to do it. "People really need to know how important it is to plan out, clearly, what it is they want to do on the Web," says Hurwitz's Rugullies. "Even before they look at the software, they need to be really articulate about what it is they want to accomplish."

Which is, of course, good news and bad. The good news is that, for people who can clearly understand their business needs and goals, there are very few limitations. "The World Wide Web is where entrepreneurship is these days," asserts Corporate Micros' Freidman. "It gives marketing systems for large companies and for small start-ups. All those middle managers who've been out of jobs since the 1980s, they can come here and open an Internet business."

The bad news is that there's also infinite room for error. "The real question," warns Michael Gro, service line manager for BBN, "is which one of us is going to really screw up and create opportunities for everyone else."

END


Links to related articles:

  • Electronic commerce: Choosing the right tools
  • Successful deployment of electronic commerce applications: process is key


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