Microsoft and Netscape

Dread waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles? If you lived in Massachusetts, you wouldn't have to. You simply could log onto your computer to renew your vehicle registration, pay a citation or purchase vanity plates. These services and more are available at The Express Lane, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles World Wide Web site, which accepts credit card payments.

The Express Lane is an example of a basic electronic commerce system, one that accepts online transactions and processes credit card orders. More fully featured e-commerce systems-that allow agencies to exchange data with their vendors, check the status of orders and track shipments to end users-are under development in Massachusetts and other states. In fact, states are considering complex e-commerce systems for tax filings, procurements, the receipt of bids and proposals, vendor payments and delivery of welfare benefits. These advanced systems will feature a host of related technologies, including smart cards and digital signatures, in addition to simple credit card processing.

To see how easy it is to set up a basic e-commerce system, we evaluated solutions from Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. These vendors take different approaches to selling e-commerce software. Microsoft's Site Server, Commerce Edition is a set of packaged tools, while Netscape's Commerce Expert is a vendor-integrated solution available with consulting services.

Not Plug-and-Play

What we found is that even an out-of-box solution will require a considerable amount of programming to produce acceptable results. Simply put, e-commerce is not a plug-and-play application; it requires a great deal of customization. And the choices for government buyers are complex as well. Most importantly, you need to decide what services you want to provide before you select an e-commerce solution.

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Microsoft's Site Server 3.0, Commerce Edition

In typical fashion, Microsoft's Site Server 3.0, Commerce Edition 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. The Commerce Edition also includes a basic Ad Server, which lets you deploy and manage digital advertisements on your site.

SiteServer, Commerce Edition is really 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 some nice 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 fully leverage 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 system. Instead, Microsoft relies 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.

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. 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 orders. 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. 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 so requires custom coding.

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 will have to write your own extensions or acquire third-party tax software, such as Taxware International Inc.'s Internet Tax System or Vertex Inc.'s competing Quantum system.

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 direct card processing software from VeriFone Inc., and card processing services, 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 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 some 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 Server, Commerce Edition doesn't offer an end-to-end commerce solution; you will 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.

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Netscape's CommerceXpert

Much as Microsoft's Site Server, Commerce Edition provides a Microsoft-centric e-commerce platform, Netscape's Commerce-Xpert 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 Commerce-Xpert 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.

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.

Third-Party Packages

Netscape bundles third-party packages, 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 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.

Selling-Side System

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

Netscape's Merchant-Xpert component is the company's business-to-consumer sales module. MerchantXpert provides many of the same capabilities as SellerXpert with respect to catalog creation and comprehensive searching. However, MerchantXpert offers limited support for credit card processors, currently supporting only CyberCash payment.

Netscape's Publishing-Xpert 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.

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

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Site Server 3.0, Commerce EditionMicrosoft Corp.(425) 882-8080www.microsoft.com

Reseller: Government Technology Services Inc.Phone: (800) 999-4874, Ext. 2044

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. 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. 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: Windows NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3 Option Pack, Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 (or other ODBC-compliant RDBMS). 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. State and local pricing may vary from state to state.

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.

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Netscape CommerceXpertNetscape Communications Corp.(650) 254-1900www.netscape.com

Reseller: Netscape Government Group Phone: (800) 784-3348

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: Significant up-front investment. 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 requirement is a Sun SPARCstation with 256M of RAM. The minimum Windows NT system requirement is a Pentium-based server with 256M of RAM.

Pricing: The state and local ECXpert base component starts at $75,000 ($37,500 for developer and test version). Additional components are sold separately and run from $80,000 to $250,000.

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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More on Installation

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 SiteServer and the SiteServer Commerce component. For simplicity's sake, we used Microsoft SQL Server as our database platform, but SiteServer, Commerce Edition works with any Open Database Connectivity-compliant database. In addition, you can choose to run the database on a separate system.

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

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