IBM rolls out improved WebSphere Commerce server

IBM Corp. on Wednesday rolled out a beefed-up version of its WebSphere Commerce package that more tightly integrates e-commerce with inventory and order management systems and other features that contribute to streamlining business processes and reducing operating costs.

The real-time inventory feature of Version 5.4 of the product makes it possible for both b-to-b (business-to-business) and b-to-c (business-to-consumer) sites to display in stock items in more visual ways.

This lets users know what online products are available, as well as side-stepping the often frustrating problem of finding out an item is not in stock only after going through the sometimes involved process of filling out online forms.

"Tying the order management features into real-time inventory capabilities lets customers see whether an item is in stock before they order, but it also lets the vendors do 'availability of promise,' which lets them sell items not yet in inventory but that they expect to be shortly," said Brian Adler, IBM's business to business segment manager for WebSphere Commerce in Cambridge, Mass.

The more advanced order management system helps streamline a number of business processes through features such as automated order status, which allows customers to track expected ship dates and automatically process backorders.

Another new capability is in the area of contract-based commerce, which gives buyers and their partners a personalized view into a b-to-b site through a personalized user interface, according to Adler. The interface can be changed on a customer by customer or contract by contract basis.

"There is not standard price or item in the b-to-b world because everything is negotiated, so it is imperative in a b-to-b system to support that. Through the personalized interface you can control the pricing a buyer sees, the items you want them to see or buy in a catalog, and what all the shipping, credit, and payment terms are as relates to their contract with the vendor," Adler said.

A third new feature is collaborative workspaces for b-to-b e-commerce designed to let parties exchange information more quickly by creating a "virtual teaming environment" where documents can be shared and edited.

"This allows teams of people to come together online to collaborate and share documents involving processes that until now were handled by fax or over the phone such as negotiating contracts or creating or responding to RFPs," Adler said.

Buyers and sellers can also administer and invite third parties into a collaborative workspace where they too can share documents or engage in threaded conversations, Adler said.

IBM has also improved the XML capabilities in WebSphere Commerce 5.4 by adding connectivity support for XML over HTTP, new XML message sets to support order management and logistics, and punchout enablement, which offers the ability to receive and respond using Ariba Inc.'s XML message format.

In a related announcement on Wednesday, IBM also announced that it has signed agreements with Staples Inc. and Panasonic to use Version 5.4.

Staples officials said they will use the new product to drive, its present e-business product, which they expect to be responsible for generating 70 percent of the Staples Contract Division's sales to corporate customers in 2002.

Panasonic officials said they will use the software to fuel both their b-to-b and b-to-c Web sites. They said they expect a second straight 50 percent increase in volume to the company's b-to-b site over the course of this year.

The WebSphere Commerce Professional Edition 5.4, intended for b-to-c sites, is available on Friday and costs US$80,000 per processor. The Business Edition of Version 5.4 includes account and contract management features as well as advanced security control. The latter is also available this Friday and costs $125,000 per processor.