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Web servers tuned for e-commerce

  • August 17, 1998
  • By Michael Jay Tucker
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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.


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."


Links to related articles:

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

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