The Web's last gap

Picking the server software that drives your e-commerce business can be a tough decision. Take a look at the leading e-commerce servers, and it's not easy to find a clear winner. "The technology's not much of a differentiator," says Larry Perlstein, an analyst Gartner. "These guys have reasonably similar architectures. And we typically see implementation times of 60 to 120 days, regardless of vendor claims."

A report by Patricia Seybold Group indicates how specialised the e-commerce server market has become. The consultancy separates the field into three groups, as follows:

- Buy-side servers are typically used to implement purchasing processes.

- Sell-side servers are application packages that handle key online business processes, from sales and marketing to customer service and fulfillment. The Seybold Group report says that these "do for e-commerce what products like SAP R/3 and Oracle applications do for [enterprise resource planning] functions."

- Marketplaces are exchanges that serve as intermediaries. Ariba's Marketplace is one example.

For this field report, Computerworld spoke with users of sell-side e-commerce servers that do both business-to-business and business-to-consumer trade, although they're more often associated with the latter. Of course, not all offerings handle all the business processes mentioned above with equal aplomb. Vendors' histories and traditional strengths affect their Web commerce servers' capabilities.

For example, analysts say that the Dynamo suite from Art Technology Group capitalises on the company's strength in personalization and that IBM's WebSphere Commerce Suite benefits from Big Blue's integration savvy.

However, middleware wasn't a significant factor when J. Crew went shopping for an e-commerce server. "We looked at MQSeries," says CIO Paul Fusco, "but it was overkill. All we needed was a simple pass-through" from the server to the retailer's back end, which consists of an Oracle8i database running on a Sun Microsystems architecture.

Fusco says speed and personalization were key factors in J. Crew's decision to purchase Dynamo. "Speed is probably most important to us," he says. "When you look at the layer between the app and the database, it's important that it perform well with Oracle8i."

Fast Track, Faster Service

For some IT managers, even though they may not use all the features of their e-commerce servers, it's nice to know that the features are there for future use. Mazda North American Operations runs a bustling Competition Parts program for auto racers who drive Mazda Miatas, RX-7s and other cars. But the program hasn't printed a catalog since 1997, and the small department was swamped by up to 100 calls per day. It was long overdue for a Web site.

Ross Katz, Web development consultant at Mazda North American, says the organisation didn't want to simply throw the catalog on a Web page. Rather, it was deemed critical that the Web site tie in with inventory systems so customers could check on parts' availability in real time. And since they were going that far, the Competition Parts staff decided to do the entire transaction online. Katz says ordering, cataloging, payment processing, reporting capabilities and campaign management were all important.

Mazda evaluated the leading e-commerce servers but leaned toward WebSphere Commerce Suite, in part because the automaker was already an IBM shop. Mazda ran its Java-based inventory system, which IBM helped create in 1999, on an S/390 Parallel Enterprise Server.

WebSphere Commerce Suite Version 5.1, running on a Windows NT server, now underpins Mazda's catalog. The catalog's contents reside in IBM's DB2 Universal Database. Stocking data comes from the company's inventory system, with IBM's MQSeries middleware facilitating communication between CICS applications on the S/390 and the catalog.

Mazda shied away from previous WebSphere Commerce Suite releases that included multiple languages. "We're an all-Java shop," Katz says. When IBM released the Java-only Version 5.1, "it was like the missing puzzle piece," he says.

Katz says that to avoid rewriting applications, Mazda customised its parts-availability inquiry so that it could be prompted by Enterprise JavaBeans to get the needed data. WebSphere Commerce Suite's Java programming model makes it easy to customise, he explains. That, along with the back-end integration with MQSeries and CICS, tipped the scales for choosing IBM's product, he says.

Though Mazda doesn't use all of WebSphere Commerce Suite's functionality (such as the globalisation features, which let businesses use a single catalog to create sites for multiple locales), Katz enjoys the insurance: "Vendors come in with, say, catalog management software. I say, 'I've already got it!' "New Meets OldFor large organisations with large amounts of data on legacy systems, integration is a key concern. About a year ago, Lowe's Cos., was seeking to modify its e-commerce infrastructure as part of an effort to retool Lowes.com, the home improvement retailer's Web site.

Matt E. Deeter, Lowe's vice president of Internet operations, says the company didn't believe any one e-commerce server suited its needs perfectly. Lowe's wanted to create on its Web site "visual cash registers" Internet equivalents of what store employees see on their dumb terminals as they ring up sales.

Deeter's team favored this approach because it leveraged its existing databases and back-end functions. "When you looked at a Blue Martini or a BroadVision," Deeter says, "you had to almost sell your soul. . . . You had to put all kinds of different data in these single systems. How do you tie that back into legacy systems? Trying to integrate that would have been something we'd have had to spend a lot of time on."

According to Gartner's Perlstein, Lowe's experience is representative of others'. Until a year or so ago, he says, "people were building online systems as stand-alone entities independent apps [not integrated with\] the rest of the legacy back end." This often led to data synchronization problems. "They were extracting data out of legacy back ends for their Web systems. Integration was real tough," he says. But now, says Perlstein, the tide has turned. "Companies are saying they don't want to have two independent systems," he says. "They want a more fully integrated back end."

Lowe's wound up customising OneSoft 4, a sell-side e-commerce suite from, OneSoft Corp., to sit on top of the company's Microsoft architecture. The OneSoft software was modified to work with Lowe's thin-client, point-of-sale system, which runs on IBM AIX servers. Interestingly, Deeter says that in the integration with its own existing back end, Lowe's used "maybe 30 percent" of OneSoft's functionality. "We'd be sitting with their architects and they'd be saying, 'This isn't how we usually do [an implementation].' We said, 'Well, we're the customer, and this is how we want to do it,' " he says.

Although users' needs vary considerably, IT leaders have a core set of requirements for e-commerce servers. "People are moving back to first principles," says John Matranga, chief technology officer at Omicron Consulting. They're demanding products that are scalable, easily maintained and that integrate well with existing databases. "Everybody's got a different angle," Matranga says. "Maybe someone's personalisation is better, or their CRM or integration. Everybody's got a slightly different way of doing it, so you pick what's important to you."

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