Microsoft, Netscape take on e-commerce

With Site Server 3.0, Commerce Edition, Microsoft takes its typical approach to enterprise software integration: The package runs exclusively on the company's Windows NT Server 4.0 and Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0.

Microsoft offers two flavors of Site Server: Site Server 3.0 and Site Server 3.0, Commerce Edition. The base Site Server product adds components and features to Microsoft's IIS platform, such as an LDAP-based directory server used for user registration and membership services. In addition, Microsoft bundles its FrontPage 98 visual Web page designer and Visual InterDev 1.0, which is a development environment for building Active Server Pages. ASPs incorporate server-side logic and database connectivity. The Commerce Edition also includes a basic Ad Server, which lets you deploy and manage digital advertisements on your site.

Site Server, Commerce Edition really is a toolkit for building an e-commerce site, rather than a packaged application that provides a lot of functionality out of the box. Although it offers tools that help you quickly build an online store, be prepared to make a significant development investment if you want to create a highly customized site or leverage the full benefits of the platform.

Site Server, Commerce Edition's strengths lie in providing a highly customizable platform for product catalog creation, order management and transaction process management. However, the product does not provide the back-end financial transaction processing and management capabilities offered by products such as Open Market Inc.'s Transact software. Like other vendors providing baseline e-commerce solutions, Microsoft relies heavily on third parties to provide these capabilities.

If you are considering Site Server, Commerce Edition, you'll need to do lots of planning before installing the product and building your first online store. We were able to set up a server and install Site Server, Commerce Edition in roughly a day. However, for most sites the planning phase will take weeks because you have to address issues such as which database system you want to use and how you will integrate e-commerce with your current product, customer and inventory databases.

A typical installation involves installing Windows NT Server 4.0, Windows NT Service Pack 3, Internet Explorer 4.0.1, Windows NT Option Pack and a relational database management system. You then must create the appropriate databases for the product and install Site Server and the Site Server Commerce component. For simplicity's sake, we used Microsoft SQL Server as our database platform, but Site Server, Commerce Edition works with any Open Database Connectivity-compliant database. In addition, you can choose to run the database on a separate system.

Site Server, Commerce Edition offers a few sample sites that you can install as a way of learning the product's capabilities. The logic behind Site Server, Commerce Edition is encapsulated in a myriad of included ASPs and Component Object Model (COM) components. These elements give Webmasters the building blocks from which to construct a robust, customized e-commerce site.

After you determine your e-commerce architecture and complete the product installation, you can start building an online store. We were able to use the product's Site Wizard to quickly build an e-commerce site and populate the site with sample data, such as departments and products. However, the site created by the wizard was fairly basic, and we wanted to make considerable modifications to the look and feel of the site. This is where our previous experience with IIS and ASPs came in handy.

After tweaking the look and feel of our electronic store, we created and managed the store's departmental organization and products. Site Server, Commerce Edition offers full browser-based administration for managing each site. From the browser, we were able to add or edit store departments and products, manage sales promotions and perform basic order management, such as viewing individual order specifics, basic order reports or customer orders and specifics. In addition, we were able to take the store offline for adjustments and bring it back online.

The logical process that any order goes through in Site Server, Commerce Edition can be controlled through Microsoft's Order Processing Pipeline. An OPP module can consist of logic composed of COM components. In addition, the product's Scriptor component lets Web developers add VBScript or JScript directly into OPP logic modules. We were able to edit the OPP files for our site either through a browser-based interface or using a richer, graphical user interface-based binary tool.

A key advantage of the package is that it lets you easily manage the steps in the OPP and customize how orders are processed. For example, with OPP you can introduce credit card verification, user purchase authority checking and purchase approval logic into the buying the process.

Even with the adjustments that we made, our Site Wizard-based online store was still too basic for most agencies in terms of presentation, capabilities, promotions and order management. You can add more robust functions, but doing this requires custom coding. Although Microsoft allows for a lot of flexibility with respect to customization, you may find that your e-commerce site requires more customization than you bargained for.

Site Server, Commerce Edition does have a few other limitations. For example, the product allows for some basic tax calculations, but the sample store that we built offered only three options based on state taxation. To add more tax calculations, you either will have to write your own extensions or acquire third-party tax software, such as Taxware International Inc.'s Internet Tax System. (Most e-commerce platforms offer integration or bundling of Taxware's online tax calculation product.)

Microsoft supports Taxware and Vertex Inc.'s competing Quantum system through vendor-authored components that plug into the OPP.

In addition, Site Server, Commerce Edition does not provide the infrastructure for actually processing credit card transactions, so you'll need to invest in additional software or services to support this capability. Microsoft supports a number of card processing options, such as using direct card processing software from VeriFone Inc., or using a card processing service, such as ICVerify or CyberCash. Microsoft ships a sampler CD of payment processor options with the product, but these products require separate licensing.

Finally, Site Server, Commerce Edition only supports electronic data interchange (EDI) mapping through third parties. Microsoft does provide a modified version of the OPP, called the Commerce Interchange Pipeline, that is more suited to business-to-business transactions. But for EDI mapping, Microsoft recommends third parties such as Sterling Commerce and CrossRoute Software.

As an e-commerce platform, Site Server, Commerce Edition offers considerable flexibility. Although the product does contain strong examples out of the box, most agencies will not want to use the product that way. If you are considering rolling out the product, be prepared to spend a significant amount of time learning its capabilities, planning your infrastructure and modifying the sample site code. In addition, Site Serv-er, Commerce Edition doesn't offer an end-to-end commerce solution. While this approach does provide flexibility, it also means you have to buy a number of components from other vendors.

Also, be aware that when you choose Site Server, Commerce Edition as an e-commerce platform, you are tying your investment to Windows NT and IIS. The product's extensive use of ASPs, COM and other Windows NT- and IIS-specific technologies severely limits portability to other operating systems in the future.

CommerceXpert

Much as Microsoft's Site Server, Commerce Edition provides a Microsoft-centric e-commerce platform, Netscape's CommerceXpert platform provides a Netscape-focused solution. Although CommerceXpert can be used with non-Netscape Web servers, the company includes several of its SuiteSpot components, such as Enterprise Server and Messaging Server, in the overall package.

Netscape's CommerceXpert is a suite of products - some from Netscape and some from third parties - designed to provide what Netscape asserts is a "best-of-breed" solution. Because Netscape also offers consulting and customization services, we weren't able to set it up and test it as we could with Microsoft's solution. However, we did evaluate the product's capabilities and can offer a sense of how it fits into the competitive landscape.

CommerceXpert is a family of products enabling various levels of e-commerce functionality. The strengths of the platform are its flexible communications infrastructure, extensible architecture and comprehensive scope.

In addition, CommerceXpert provides a solution for a variety of e-commerce tasks, covering the selling and buying processes.

In addition to the Netscape-specific products offered in the family, the company brings together partner products, such as TSI International Software Ltd.'s Mercator for EDI mapping, Taxware's Internet Tax System for taxation purposes and Oracle Corp.'s Oracle8 as an underlying database. Netscape also bundles several SuiteSpot server components, such as Enterprise, Messaging Server and Directory Server. Netscape doesn't require that you use its Web server, mail server or other infrastructure components, but they are included in the bundle.

Netscape's CommerceXpert is supported on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris and Microsoft's Windows NT Server, but the company plans to release a version for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP/UX as well.

Netscape's ECXpert is the base component of the CommerceXpert suite; it provides for information exchange between disparate data systems, such as an HTTP server and an EDI value-added network. As an information translation service, ECXpert provides a broad range of capabilities supporting data interchange to and from HTTP, FTP, SMTP, S/MIME, EDI mapping and even custom systems. Through ECXpert's Web-based administration console, administrators can set up trading partner relationships and assign rules-based actions to be performed on transactions of a specific type that come into the system from a specific partner.

Netscape's BuyerXpert, SellerXpert, MerchantXpert and PublishingXpert run on top of the ECXpert platform, providing varying e-commerce capabilities.

BuyerXpert allows organizational purchasers to consolidate multiple external suppliers into a single, comprehensive, Web-based system. The product's reporting facilities let users track purchasing trends or find out which suppliers are the most popular in order to negotiate better discounts. In addition, BuyerXpert supports the Open Buying on the Internet standard, which allows an organization to internally replicate and host product catalogs from external partners. One nice capability is that end users can search several catalogs at the same time for a particular item.

Netscape's SellerXpert is the selling-side system for business-to-business e-commerce. Netscape claims that SellerXpert provides a more off-the-shelf approach to building catalog-based commerce systems than does Microsoft's toolkit-based approach. However, because we couldn't actually implement the product, we cannot validate this claim.

One feature of the Netscape solution is that it offers the ability to host specific contract logic for particular partners. Also, through its ECXpert platform, Netscape provides support for EDI and integration with Oracle Financials and SAP R/3.

Netscape's MerchantXpert component is the company's business-to-consumer sales module. MerchantXpert provides many of the same capabilities as Seller-Xpert with respect to catalog creation and comprehensive searching. Like Microsoft's Site Server, Commerce Edition, Merchant-Xpert doesn't include the actual credit card transaction processing capabilities. And Netscape offers limited support for financial processors, currently supporting only CyberCash payment.

Netscape's PublishingXpert component allows organizations to deploy a controlled access site for subscription-oriented services, such as for a publication or information service. PublishingXpert provides secured access to publications and can support custom billing models. In addition, the product lets organizations host multiple content-oriented sites.

Together, the components of Netscape's CommerceXpert suite combine to provide a single platform for conducting most e-commerce-related activities, such as buying, selling and publishing to business partners and consumers. This approach should serve to lower an agency's overall administrative and development efforts by reducing the differences between functional components. CommerceXpert is definitely worth checking out.

However, not having had the opportunity to implement and manage the system ourselves, it is difficult to speculate on how well the product stands up to high-end competitors such as Open Market, BroadVision Inc., Ariba Technologies Inc. and Commerce One Inc.

-- Symoens is a senior technical analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

REPORT CARD

Microsoft Corp.

(425) 882-8080

www.microsoft.com

Reseller: Government Technology Services Inc.

Phone: (800) 999-4874

Pros: Good extensibility. Well-integrated with Microsoft's IIS. It offers a number of useful tools, such as an LDAP-based directory, an Ad Server and a Direct Mailer component. It includes development tools. Site Server, Commerce Edition is fairly easy to modify and extends order processing logic.

Cons: It requires significant development effort for advanced results and requires a lot of third-party integration to work with existing systems or EDI partners or to build an end-to-end commerce solution. It ties your investment to Windows NT and IIS.

Platform: NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3 Option Pack, Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 (or other ODBC-compliant RDBMS). The Site Server 3.0 base product must be installed as well. The minimum hardware requirements is a 133 MHz Pentium with 64M of RAM (128M recommended).

Pricing: $4,067 per server on GTSI's GSA schedule.

Remarks: Microsoft's Site Server 3.0, Commerce Edition provides an extensive toolkit for building an e-commerce site the Microsoft way. While this product provides strong components, good sample sites and some automation, you'll need a dedicated development staff to leverage the platform.

REPORT CARD

Netscape Communications Corp.

(650) 254-1900

www.netscape.com

Reseller: Intelligent Decisions Inc.

Phone: (703) 322-3336

Pros: Strong interoperability between disparate systems and the ability to add new services at your own pace. CommerceXpert provides a common infrastructure for supporting multiple e-commerce services.

Cons: There's a significant up-front investment. It requires additional integration with a third-party payment system or provider.

Platform: All components run on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris or Microsoft Windows NT. For the Solaris version, the minimum system requirements are a Sun SPARCstation with 256M of RAM. The minimum Windows NT system requirement is a Pentium-based server with 256M of RAM

Pricing: The ECXpert base component starts at $69,000. Additional components are sold separately and run from $41,000 to $232,000 on Intelligent Decisions' GSA schedule.

Remarks: CommerceXpert is a family of top-level components that meet a variety of e-commerce challenges. The CommerceXpert solution will be attractive to sites that want to provide a variety of services -- such as buying, selling and publishing -- on a common platform and with minimal development effort.

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