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Web servers tuned for e-commerce

  • By Michael Jay Tucker
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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.

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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.


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."

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This article was originally published on August 17, 1998

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