When it comes to e-business, you can't take anything for granted. Once upon a time, improving your bottom line simply meant streamlining the integration among your partners and business processes. Nowadays it also means doing a better job of assessing and fulfilling your customers' demands. Of course, that usually brings about a whole new set of problems - bigger budgets, delays to market, and complicated mixes of software are all common plights.
Microsoft's Commerce Server 2000 is coming to help. An upgrade of the company's old Site Server 3.0, Commerce Server improves mightily on that product's integration capabilities and installation process. It also provides a top-notch toolset that lets you monitor, target and adapt to changes in the e-commerce climate; new customer profiling and targeting tools that can help improve revenue; a first-rate cataloguing system for easy design, editing, and searching; and centralised administration over your entire site's configuration, maintenance, and operations.
On paper, many of these new features only bring Commerce Server up to par with competing products from vendors such as IBM and BEA Systems. But in practice, we found the breadth and depth of competence contained in the application to constitute a truly first-rate package. With Commerce Server, you can save time and collect key customer relationship-building data - all at Internet speed and far more easily than ever before on the Windows platform.
Management by proxy
Although we evaluated a beta version of Commerce Server, it was clear that Site Server had undergone a major overhaul. Most of the changes were geared towards delivering real-time information, thereby giving you a better opportunity to make on-the-fly business decisions.
For example, the MMC (Microsoft Management Console) provides live health and performance metrics. The Business Desk lets you steer your e-commerce initiative via secure, remote access where you can update site content, change advertising banners, modify product catalogues, and run productivity and sales reports. In our tests, the Business Desk delivered on its promise, allowing us to react quickly at the business level to meet changing needs.
The big picture
Commerce Server also improves on Site Server's Pipeline technology, which depicts the business process flows that link the various stages of an online transaction. The Pipeline extends beyond the level of general order processing to display more of the e-business picture, including CRM (customer relationship management) features such as targeted discounting, advertising, and personalised content delivery via ASP (Active Server Pages).
Again, we were impressed. The Pipeline editor's easy-to-comprehend graphical interface was a cinch to use, and a set of pre-built components facilitated processes such as order processing and direct mail campaigns. As a result, we could readily automate business processes to meet the challenges of developing e-business needs.
Commerce Server's new profiling and targeting systems can also help you drive revenue by boosting cross- and up-selling opportunities.
The profiling system aggregates data across multiple sources to provide a look at critical information such as customer clickstream data, demographics and length of session. You can use this information to tailor communications that personalise your customers' online experience. For example, discounted pricing, customised catalogues and Web pages, and relevant advertising can all be derived to shape the end-user's experience.
We found another useful tool in the Campaign Manager, which provides features similar to those found in e-CRM products such as Delano's Customer Velocity. With Campaign Manager, you can launch and manage-personalised e-mail advertising campaigns based on profiled user data. The Manager also lets you organise and manage user groups and profiles and track responses and the status of your campaigns.
Commerce Server's Product Catalogue system was another boon. Thanks to easy-to-use import and export capabilities, we had no problem either developing catalogues from existing data sources or creating new ones. Better yet, the Catalogue (stored on Microsoft's SQL Server 2000) proved to be robust enough for even large-scale e-commerce projects.
To complete the package, Commerce Server comes with new XML integration features (based on Microsoft's BizTalk Server 2000), yielding more powerful search tools and the capability of deploying, updating and exchanging catalogues with third-party business and trading partners more efficiently than before.
But there's even more. Commerce Server ships with a wealth of useful features, such as a site-packaging utility to accelerate the testing and deployment of site changes, superb data mining analysis tools (great for planning your site and predicting future sales trends), and a smooth interface for developing items such as targeted business rules for personalisation.
In fact, one of the only drawbacks we could find was that the samples we were given could stand a little polish to better show off what's under the hood. But, of course, that's a relatively minor quibble.
Overall, Commerce Server's powerful and flexible features deliver sorely needed e-commerce benefits to the Windows platform. Whether you're deploying business-to-business or business-to-consumer implementations, Commerce Server 2000 fits the bill: its potent site development and customer data tracking tools can improve decision-making, enable personalised marketing, and help you forge new business partnerships.