In the midst of an economic cooling, it can be pretty difficult to justify updating an existing commerce infrastructure. Nevertheless, IBM Corp.'s WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro 5.1 delivers a solid vehicle for broadening revenue streams by leading global e-initiatives out of the stateside doldrums and across the big blue seas.
This Java-based, e-commerce solution is an infrastructure for building, deploying, and administering e-commerce sites. It can integrate with existing internal and partnered systems, which can be easily expanded with add-ons to meet future needs.
WebSphere Pro includes many enterprise-level provisions and tools, including support for auctions, business intelligence, personalization, and marketing campaigns. Although none of these additions are particularly new, IBM has done a great job of making these functions sophisticated enough to address the needs of maturing e-commerce.
Version 5.1's improved user-access control and easier administration will help lower TCO, and cookieless session management will address privacy concerns, thereby bolstering shopper confidence.
Although workability of the new catalog subsystem falls short of comparable offerings in Microsoft Corp.'s Commerce Server, the suite goes a long way toward surmounting the idiosyncrasies of conducting business beyond native borders and allows broad functionality to be maintained in a single, easily managed site. Therefore, WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro 5.1 earned a score of Very Good for consideration as an enterprise e-commerce platform.
At first glance, we found the setup procedure more streamlined than those of earlier versions. Installing the various suite components, including Commerce Server, Application Server, DB2 Universal Database, Payment Manager, and the HTTP server (IBM's adaptation of the Apache Web server) took just half an hour.
If you prefer, WebSphere can also be configured using alternate Web servers, such as Netscape iPlanet and Lotus Domino, or an Oracle8i database.
There are some sizable system resource requirements to consider, and we found no room for skimping on them. IBM lists the minimum system configuration as an Intel Pentium III 733MHz processor with 512MB of memory, but we would recommend something with more muscle, as response times from this configuration proved slightly sluggish.
Creating and configuring a new store was easy work, particularly when basing it on the sample store provided. WebSphere imports the necessary HTML and JSP (JavaServer Pages) files, catalog information, payment and tax details, shipper information, and more to build a complete store archive template ready for customization.
One of the most impressive aspects of WebSphere is the provision for global-commerce development. It enabled us to design sites that could be easily customized to meet requirements in foreign markets.
Parameters for language, currency, and taxes -- including Value Added Taxes, where applicable -- were easy to select. Other considerations, such as regional shipping guidelines and carrier selection, presented no hassles to our setup. All currency selection and formatting can be automated at run time, providing context-rich page displays relevant to a shopper's point of origin.
Although the revised catalog subsystem provides advantages over previous versions, with capabilities for better product classification and grouping, we actually found the catalog development tools to be one of Version 5.1's shortcomings.
WebSphere provides a utility called Loader, great for importing large catalogs of existing XML data into the repository. But Loader lacks functionality for such an integral part of a site.
We found site maintenance and administration easily performed via the browser interface, either on the local machine or remotely. The administration console provides good control over site and store parameters, payment management options, user and group access, and monitoring.
End-user tools also performed well. The Commerce Suite Accelerator is great for delegating the operational responsibilities of an online e-business. Users can work directly on merchandising campaigns, such as up-and cross-sell offerings, build customer lists and groups, and manage auctions.
Customer service representatives can review orders, check status, and manage inquiries in real time. Furthermore, administrators can handily assign and restrict user privileges and access with feature-by-feature granularity.
The latest WebSphere offers rules-based personalization support from two approaches, the Blaze Rules Engine seen in previous versions, and now Macromedia LikeMinds. Blaze requires preconfigured rule construction and event-triggered actions; LikeMinds provides a more flexible personalization alternative.
Handy additions such as WebSphere Commerce Analyzer made cracking open the wealth of useful information buried in WebSphere's log resources easy.
WebSphere also includes a number of payment protocol options for the Payment Manager.
The expertise necessary to master some of the advanced intricacies of WebSphere might prove too heady for the skill sets of smaller companies, but IBM offers WebSphere in a variety of configurations, including the Start Edition and Developer Edition, one of which will make an affordable fit to improving e-commerce profitability for your business. In the face of an economic cooling, that fact alone makes WebSphere worth your look.
Test Center Managing Analyst James R. Borck covers e-business solutions. Contact him at email@example.com.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro 5.1
Business Case: This e-commerce component suite reduces time to market for deploying sites. Out-of-the-box integration eases setup requirements, and multicultural features enable global-commerce initiatives.
Technology Case: WebSphere can be configured with very little effort or training. Building beyond the basics will demand an additional development environment, and catalog construction will benefit from a stronger toolset.
+ Supports global commerce
+ Provides out-of-the-box functionality
+ Contains many wizard-driven elements
+ Has solid messaging, payment, reporting capabilities+ Is available in a much less expensive Start EditionCons:
- Is costly
- Could benefit from more catalog management tools- Lacks integrated Java toolsetCost: US$45,000 per processor, $8,000 per storePlatform(s): Windows NT, Windows 2000, AIX, SolarisIBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.; (800) 426-2255; www.ibm.com