Serving Up Customers
by Rebecca Rohan This is no longer a drill. Sites like Surplus Software and 1-800-FLOWERS are serious about selling products online, and the ranks of online shoppers are starting to expand. With public acceptance of secure servers, chances are good that your competitor is already ringing up sales-with or without a RealAudio "Ka-Ching."
There are a few advantages to just beginning to shop for a secure commerce server now. First, competitors who dove in early had less material to research and a small or nonexistent pool of example sites and references. Second, online purchases are gaining public acceptance and bringing out the shoppers, so there is less of a wait to profit from your investment. Third, time brought more server products to choose from.
But the number of offerings is still so small that you may have to choose by platform or even adopt a new platform to find a server that meets your business needs and budget (some of the most successful sites have done just that). There are also packages with merchant tools that use someone else's server, such as Silicon Graphics' WebForce2 (bundled with a Netscape server). We've only considered vendors using their own servers here (which is why iCAT's Electronic Commerce Suite wasn't included, either--Ed.).
In this schizophrenic time of being a little too early for lots of server choices, and a little too late to sit idly by, it's imperative to consider the practical advice of the pioneers already ringing up sales online. They have some comments about the products they chose, which we've added to some of the product overviews. Finally, our mammoth server comparison chart pits manufacturer claims side-by-side for a graphic look at raw features.
First, here's a bit of explanation for some of the technical features we mention:
A "proxy" is an intermediary that can request or receive data on your behalf. It works in conjunction with a firewall, to put a layer of protection or discrimination between your company and the outside world (a caching proxy stores information called from other locations so the next time a user calls that URL, the information is at hand. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you're calling information that remains the same or needs to be updated).
"User authentication" means making sure that only those authorized to perform certain activities at your site can do so. It usually involves comparing a login and password to a record of what that user is allowed to do.
"Host name filtering" allows you to block traffic from a host or machine name, such as vandalmachine.domain.com. Domain name filtering should be included with host name filtering.
"Server aliasing" lets you treat more than one machine as virtually the same. This is useful if you want to set up a round robin of hardware servers, passing requests to the least busy machine. If you type a URL into the location box in your browser and hit Return and the address changes slightly when you reach the site, this is probably an example of server aliasing. Don't confuse this with "push" type technologies, that load a new page after you successfully arrive at the original address.
"Server-side includes" means including a file not in the HTML document when displaying a page. The contents may change dynamically. For security reasons, administrators often limit this to scripts getting specific kinds of information, and prohibit executing programs or calling programs from scripts.
I/NET's Commerce Server/400
Platforms: IBM AS/400
Commerce Server/400 offers a respectable selection of features supported by most of the servers here-its claim to fame is being the first and only secure server for IBM's AS/400 platform. Commerce Server/400 supports Java, ActiveX, DB/2, ODBC, and SQL Customers can look up their own orders. There is no proxy or caching proxy support, but the package supports server-side includes, as well as server aliasing.
IBM Internet Connection Secure Server
Platforms: OS/2 Warp, AIX, Windows NT, Solaris and HP-UX
Internet Connection Secure Server 4.1 (ICS) includes quite a few features shared by most or all the others for the basic $295, such as SSL, and support for Java, ActiveX, ODBC, and SQL. But it will cost you extra for features such as letting customers look up their own orders, custom logging, Web News launching, automatic e-mail to customers and fulfillment houses, shopping carts, server aliasing, and full reporting. Other missing features include host name filtering and IP address filtering.
ICS does include proxy support, caching proxy support, and National Language Support (NLS). You can even customize error messages. Version 4.2 will support Java on the server side. Version 4.2 on some platforms will support Secure Electronic Transaction (SET)-a protocol that allows users to send an encrypted credit card number that remains encrypted at the merchant's site before traveling on to the banking site. Version 4.2 was due out at the end of February.
Internet Factory Merchant Builder
Platforms: Windows 95 or Windows NT
supports transactions through Cybercash, and has proxy support, caching proxy support, and its own Server Macro Language, SMX. It also supports live chat and Web-based newsgroups. The system has shopping carts, and can automatically notify users and fulfillment houses of transactions. Administrators will appreciate access to Merchant Builder's source code. There is no support for server aliasing.
Eric Rice, Webmaster at KidSoft LLC, got on line with Merchant Builder 2.0 in just 3 to 4 weeks, even though he went to special lengths to make KidSoft look different than other sites built with Merchant Builder and its SMX Server Macro Language. Eric has experience with Mac WebStar, Mac HTTP, Unix Apache server, and WebCommander for NT. Rice likes Merchant Builder's ability to generate many pages by compiling changes to a single template. "That will make an upcoming redesign of the store's appearance easy," says Rice. He doesn't like Merchant Builder using its own HTTP daemon, which creates an inconvenience not present in Luckman's WebCommander, another server he finds useful.
Luckman's Web Commander Pro
Price: $495 Windows 95, $595 NT
Platforms: Windows 95 or Windows NT
Luckman (see review article, p. 28) has one of the most interesting feature sets, with credit card clearing software, a secure certificate wizard, DNS (NT only), caching proxy server (NT only), firewall, an FTP server, a POP3/SMTP mail server, and real-time audio/video streaming with Xing's StreamWorks 2.0 MPEG server/player and encoder. You can get real-time usage statistics, and Luckman threw in HTML, Java, and Perl tools, plus Excite and WAIS search engines, Internet Explorer, and three kitchen sinks for good measure. With all that, it's kind of surprising not to see a shopping cart and automatic e-mail notification to customers or fulfillment houses.
Microsoft Merchant Server
Price: $14,995 plus $3,495 per store
Platforms: Windows NT Server 3.51 on Intel 486 or DEC Alpha
Merchant Server addresses lots of issues about orders, inventory, tax, shipping, and payment processing, though addressing issues doesn't mean it takes care of everything. For example, the package includes an evaluation version of Verifone vPOS, which is designed for Secure Electronic Transactions (SET), but the eval is only for setting things up-users must pay for the real thing if they want to use it. There is a component to link to a fulfillment system, though you have to do some building. But Merchant Server does a lot of things very well, and many of the most prestigious merchant sites on the Web use it.
Donna M. Iucolano, Director of Interactive Services for 1-800-FLOWERS, Inc., checked out Merchant Server in its beta days and became interested in the merchandising possibilities of online couponing. She also liked the idea of the whole Web site being database-driven. Iucolano recognized how easy it would be to maintain the site by updating information through templates. She also believed that Microsoft could afford the cost of serious development. 1-800-FLOWERS runs on Merchant Server over Windows NT 4.0 with Microsoft SQL Server 6.5.
Netscape Commerce Platform and Servers
Price: $63,000 +optional $15,000 staging server
Platforms: Solaris, SGI Irix, Digital UNIX, HP/UX, IBM AIX (no Intel currently)
At Netscape, the $63,000 question is answered by $28,000 for the merchant server, which handles storefront info with automated page generation and an integrated product search engine that brings up hypertext links to products, plus $35,000 for the transaction server, which handles credit card authorization, shipping, sales tax, mail to fulfillment houses, and records to end users. Shipping options can be based on weight range or on a per-product basis, etc. The transaction server deals with couriers and options for them, as well. An Oracle database is integrated into the merchant server and transaction server, and stores information you can harvest for demographic analysis. An optional staging server costs $15,000 and allows merchants to preview storefront displays before they go live. All three servers sit on Netscape's Enterprise Server 2.0, which is included.
A forms interface allows site administrators to enter basic setup information without going through a host prompt with custom scripts. Merchants can offer promotions based on discount coupons that reduce prices by dollar amounts or by percent.
Netscape offers a real-time credit card processing feature. There's no proxy support, no user authentication, no host name filtering, no IP/address filtering, and no National Language Support, according to Netscape. SQL is supported but ODBC is not. The work environment is GUI only during setup of basic user information. The system has been out for a year and a half.
Open Market's OM-Transact
Price: $250,000 + $3,000 per merchant
Platforms: Sun OS, Solaris, Silicon Graphics, Stratus, HP
OM-Transact supports several payment types-transaction clearinghouses, EDI, PO, ACH, and micropayments. The software can also make notifications to various parties via email, fax, EDI, and open API to legacy systems (oops-the sales tax module is another $25,000 and the fax module another $5,000). OM-Transact offers live chat and has a Java authoring tool. Access to source code is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. There is proxy support, but it's non-caching.
Don't let the quarter-mil sticker price scare you away-smaller businesses can subscribe to the server at a much lower cost through a commerce service provider such as AT&T. Nine other companies currently offer the service.
O'Reilly Web Site Professional
Platforms: Windows 95 or Windows NT 3.51
WebSite Professional costs $499, runs on a 486, and gets high praise from users as easy to use. Webmasters can administer their sites remotely across the Net. The package includes its own API (WSAPI) and is compatible with Microsoft's ISAPI. It supports three CGIs (Windows-CGI, Standard, and DOS), and integrates the Cold Fusion Standard ODBC/SQL tool. There's no proxy support, and no built-in support for customers looking up their own orders, but you can add live chat for only $149. Webmasters using WebSite Pro communicate with each other via an active e-mail support group.
Mark Camp, Director of Internet Services for Meyer & Johnson, which creates and hosts Web sites for companies like Zales, practically swears by WebSite Pro. Camp says he found capability, reliability, and ease of administration in WebSite Pro. He's especially pleased with O'Reilly's documentation. The company uses WebSite Pro's API scripting and Cold Fusion (even for non-database development), and very little CGI.
"O'Reilly seems to make their products usable by people running their own businesses," says Camp-people "whose background is not in UNIX, and Webmastering is not their job." Camp uses the shareware version of the server as a teaching tool in his user group. "I see it as hands down the best thing for the Intel platform," says Camp, who has also set up Microsoft and Netscape servers.
Eric Parucki, Network and Systems Manager for Onward Technologies, Inc., has created 30 sites using O'Reilly's WebSite Professional, and calls its ease of use "superior."
Now that you've sampled some of the features, prices, platforms, and implementations of the current generation of commerce servers, you have some important decisions to make. We hope you'll make it carefully, creatively, and practically.
Reprinted from Web Developer� magazine, Vol. 3 No.2 Mar/Apr 1997 (c) 1997. All rights reserved.