Product review: Get e-commerce to go with MS Site Server

If you've got something to sell on the World Wide Web, there are plenty of service providers vying to host your e-commerce site. But large companies with the in-house resources to maintain their product catalogues online can probably do a better job themselves with one of the five electronic storefront packages we tested.

Despite the enormous price range of these products - from $US495 to $19,999 - we were surprised to find that many vendors are missing critical components, such as enterprise scalability and interoperability. Most still haven't realised that e-commerce needs to focus on the buyer, not the seller. For example, Internet shoppers want quick, intuitive shops with helpful recommendation features and easy payment options. Few packages offer any of these features, much less all three.

Our Blue Ribbon Award winner is Microsoft Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition, a mammoth storefront builder and manager that can scale from simple shops to online malls. Site Server didn't win any points for its installation procedures, but the ease of management and sheer weight of features the system includes make it the hands-down winner.

Our other high-end product, IBM's Net.Commerce Pro 3.1.1, is tough to use and tied to proprietary back-end systems, though it's unmatched in its ability to import database information from legacy applications.

At the low end, Inex's Commerce Court 3.2 Professional stood out for its ease of use, good features and excellent value. For less than $1000, Inex provides everything a small company needs for creating an online commercial presence. Two other low-end contenders, GoldPaint Internet Services' Shopping Cart Professional 3.945 and WebGenie Software's Shopping Cart Professional 2.03, offered fewer features and weaker third-party support.

Leader of the pack

It's easy to be skittish of a complex application, such as Microsoft Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition, which comes on two CD-ROMs. But once we had it up and running, we found Site Server to be the best all-around e-commerce tool in this comparison.

Site Server is surprisingly easy to use and feature-rich. Microsoft includes five sample sites that demonstrate business-to-consumer and business-to-business storefronts. Site Server supports third-party payment processing and tax calculations for just about every service provider we know. For the power user, the Pipeline Editor helps you design the flow of commerce through your site on a step-by-step basis.

Additional features include an advertisement manager; a robust searching system; a push-based content system based on Microsoft's Active Channel; and in-depth reporting tools that provide complete details about your site and its sales. New in Version 3.0 is integration with Microsoft Transaction Server for server-centric application deployment.

Best, and most important, all the pieces of Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition work well as part of a unified whole. And despite its vast scope, the system is quite speedy, allowing you to retrieve product information with no measurable waiting time.

However, don't harbour any illusions about easily interoperating Site Server with an Oracle database or a Netscape Web server. Site Server requires Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0, Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 with Service Pack 4, and an NT File System volume on your hard disk upon which to install the software. You'll also need heavy SQL Server knowledge to properly configure the four databases you need to run all of Site Server's features. (Although you can use Oracle or any other Open Database Connectivity-compliant database, the implicit recommendation is that you use SQL Server.)Plan, too, for a rough installation. Failed install scripts, crashed servers, command-line work and numerous lengthy setup routines sent us scrambling to Microsoft TechNet on more than one occasion.

For a hint of just how complex Site Server is, take a look at the "Getting Started" book, which is 131 pages. Microsoft's remaining manuals are good enough to get you on your way without many calls to tech support.

All in all, Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition is a good value at almost $6500 for unlimited user connections (and unlimited stores, so you can use this as a hosting product as well), and it's one of the best e-commerce tool kits out there.

Christopher Null is the co-author of the upcoming Complete Networking Desk Reference (Osborne). He can be reached at null@sirius.com.

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