Internet commerce emerges
- By Rich Seeley
- July 23, 2001
When it comes to developing
electronic commerce sites on the Internet, Intranets and Extranets, the options are plentiful -- perhaps too plentiful for many I/S organizations.
"There are usually multiple vendor solutions available," says Robin Palmer, partner in charge of the Electronic Commerce Practice in the San Francisco office of consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick. He is a veteran of building electronic commerce systems for large corporations like Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., in so-called "Intranet years," a rapidly shrinking time frame that has been cut from three months to one month over the past six months or so.
Palmer does not recommend developing an electronic commerce site from the ground up because he has found that process to be too time-consuming. Instead, he recommends that corporations purchase packaged software that is tailored for specific types of electronic commerce, such as a storefront retail site, and then use internal developers to customize the system to meet specific needs. Palmer said that his experience has found that this option makes it possible to get a site up and running in Internet years rather than calendar years.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of companies offering solutions in all areas of electronic commerce," Palmer says in what may be the understatement of this Internet year. A search for electronic commerce products for Web development indicates to many an organization that it is one of the fastest growing segments of the software industry. A simple request for information from vendors in the electronic commerce business can quickly lead to information overload. For example, an AltaVista World-Wide Web search for 'electronic commerce products' returns 100,000-plus possible matches.
While it is easy to find product options, the trick for developers tasked with creating a site that marks a company's first foray into the brave new world of electronic commerce is to find the best option for a particular project.
Among the software electronic commerce options, Palmer suggests considering the Netscape Merchant System from Netscape Communications Inc., Mountain View, Calif., which is described by many observers as the inventor of the Internet year. Palmer said he is also looking forward to evaluating the recently unveiled Java Electronic Commerce Framework from JavaSoft, the software subsidiary of Sun Microsystems Inc., also of Mountain View.
Netscape Merchant System
The Netscape Merchant System is designed for developing Web-based shopping sites. The package includes the basic ingredients for building an online storefront, including the ability to display and update product information, process orders and calculate shipping and sales tax charges. And it includes security for credit card processing. It also provides developers with a set of product and storefront display templates which can be customized with corporate logos and product brands. The Netscape Merchant System also comes with a search engine so customers can rummage for specific products which can be dropped into an electronic shopping cart that can hold items until the final purchase. For handling all product information, the system includes what Netscape calls "commercial-strength databases."
Electronic travel agency
Using Netscape's Merchant System, Publishing System and Commerce Server, Worldview Systems Corp., Fort Worth, Texas, built Travelocity, a virtual travel agency on the Web. The site, running on multiple Sparc 20 Unix-based servers from Sun, can provide travelers with information on more than 45,000 hotels and other lodging facilities, as well as details on 13,000 golf courses. Armchair travelers with a Web browser can view thousands of photos and video clips of the facilities and maps of travel destinations. A link to the American Airlines Sabre Interactive flight reservation system lets online tourists and business travelers check airline schedules, flight availability and fares. The link also allows for online airline ticket purchases.
B. D. Goel, vice president of engineering, for Worldview Systems echoes Palmer's opinion that the best way to build an electronic commerce site is to start with a packaged application framework. Goel selected Netscape's Merchant System as the foundation for the Travelocity system. "It's the perfect way for us to organize, customize and deliver text, graphics, audio and video documents to Internet users."
The Java Electronic Commerce Framework brought out this spring by JavaSoft includes APIs for Java platforms that are intended to help developers build electronic commerce applications. The Javasoft framework is targeted at the financial services industry. The development tools included in what SunSoft calls the Java Commerce Toolkit include Java Wallet, which can build payment services into applications. Java Wallet offers developers a variety of payment protocols.
However, because the Java Commerce Toolkit is so new, observers say it seems to exist today as more of a theoretical framework defined in a SunSoft white paper, rather than as a development tool for creating online banking systems.
Online mortage lending
Nonetheless, Web-based electronic commerce for banks is not just theoretical today, experts note. American Management Systems (AMS), a Fairfax, Va.-based software and consulting firm, utilized existing tools from the IBM Software Solutions unit in Somers, N.Y., to create a system that allows customers of the Montreal-based Bank of Montreal to shop for mortgages and even get a loan approved via the Internet. The application is built to cut across the secure Web infrastructure of the bank directly into the back-end loan server.
AMS built the system using the IBM VisualAge toolset and MQSeries middleware and internally developed APIs designed to interface with the legacy loan origination system of the bank.
The package, called the Online Mortgage System, first processes the loan application information of a customer and then automatically requests and retrieves a credit report from a credit bureau. A decision on whether to approve the loan request is made after sending the online credit application and credit bureau report to Strata, a loan decision system also created for the Bank of Montreal by AMS. Strata scores the customer information based on profiles and bank policy. If the Strata system evaluates the application and finds it meets the bank criteria, the loan may be approved, at least conditionally, while the customer is still sitting at a PC viewing the process through a Netscape Navigator browser.
What eventually became the online loan processing system for customers started out three years ago as an AMS project to build a system that allows all Bank of Montreal tellers in branch offices to handle loan applications from PC clients.
"What we started with at the bank was an old SNA network with relatively low bandwidth," explained Jerry Tylman, a senior principal of AMS who managed the development of the Online Mortgage System. "We had to move to a message-based architecture." So Tylman said AMS engineers built "a very intelligent client that has a GUI that is in front of an object model. Then we used MQSeries throughout the whole chain. So we have MQClient talking to the branch server which has the MQServer component. Then the branch server acts as a gateway to the mainframe and it talks to MQHost."
The first system was built to assure that any potential customer could walk into any Bank of Montreal branch and a bank employee could immediately be available to handle a mortgage application.
"Then about a year ago," Tylman recalled, "the Internet in Canada really heated up." At that point, bank officials turned to AMS to build a lending system that could utilize the Internet. "We had all the things in place to lop off the GUI and put on an HTML front-end," noted Tylman. So AMS agreed to develop the system, he said.
AMS created the original bank branch client side application using the Smalltalk development language. With the IBM VisualAge WebTool, AMS developers could use the VisualAge SmallTalk editor to create HTML with a CGI link between the SmallTalk object model and the HTML. This transformed the existing branch clients into Internet servers. So a customer using the Web browser could now fill out HTML pages with his loan application information.
"Then we send that data back through the CGI link to the server at the branch," Tylman explains. "So the data comes in and the server can substantiate all the objects that are needed for it. If there are any errors, it shoots them back to the customer on a new HTML page with instructions to go back and correct the information. If the information is clean, we update the object and send the next HTML page to collect the next set of data. And it works really nicely, except for slow Internet time. If the Internet is having a good day, it works really fast."
The key job for AMS developers was to build a concurrency architecture for a Smalltalk client that could transform it into a Smalltalk server. Once that task was completed, the basic architecture was in place for delivering an Internet version of the loan processing system, now known as the Bank of Montreal Online Mortgage System.
While a home banking customer may imagine that he or she is involved in an interactive process with the main computer of the bank, the process is really little more than sending text files to the branch server and in return, getting a HTML reply page. To maintain security for both the customer and the bank, the system requires that PC users install an SSL-compatible browser, which allows 40-bit encryption at the browser level. The bank has built two firewalls and by using the asynchronous MQSeries, no transaction from the desktop PC must go directly to the host.
"The data is just flowing one way," Tylman explained. "It goes to the server where the data for the credit application is processed and then the server sends it to the host. So the user is never in contact with the host."
The Internet mortgage system was developed between February and November 1996 using VisualAge Smalltalk. Tylman says his development team was quickly sold on the benefits of the IBM toolset. "We've got C programmers on the team who say we couldn't have done this in that time frame with C++ or any other tool," Tylman says.
Electronic commerce options
The virtual travel agency built using the new Netscape Merchant System and the online mortgage system built using existing IBM tools represent two examples of how an electronic commerce site can be built either from the ground up with a development environment or by tailoring a vendor package. It would take a catalog as large as a big city phone book to list all the options for electronic commerce development. What follows is a sampling of some of the multitude of tools and utilities available to developers.
for Windows is a Web storefront in a box for small businesses seeking
a presense on the Internet to expand revenue. The INEX Entrepreneur
software can create an electronic storefront and conduct business online.
is an online commerce creation package that provides data-entry forms,
custom reports and back office management for building an online store.
Version 2.2 includes a 'Mall Manager' feature for hosting multiple stores.
Merchant Builder includes tools for creating and updating stores, for
receiving payments and process orders, and for managing customer data.
for Windows allows businesses to build storefronts on the World-Wide
Web. The software includes two components: a Web storefront; and a cross-platform
administrator. Tango Merchant is said to allow merchant's to store product,
customer and order information.
The Intershop Mall
software targets service providers preparing to offer electronic commerce
services to clients. The manufacturer says service providers can use
the product to host hundreds of "electronic storefronts" on a single
server and thousands in a server cluster. The storefronts can be leased
to merchants, allowing individual merchants to avoid the cost of buying
or leasing servers.
Market Maker is
a Java-based business-to-business electronic commerce software package
designed to allow an organization to operate a vertical marketplace
for buyers and sellers for conducting business in a centralized trading
environment. Potential customers include trade associations, publishing
companies and other organizations with a large base of buyers and sellers
that can use a Web site to search for products, negotiate price, place
orders, track shipments and review account status.
Viaweb is said
to allow computer neophytes to build a store on the Internet and start
taking orders the same day. The system is priced from $100 per month.
More than 120 companies, from very small entrepreneurial companies to
massive retailers such as Frederick's of Hollywood, use Viaweb for electronic
Krakatoa Web Catalog
Publisher, includes graphical authoring environment called Krakatoa
EasyAuthor, a Windows 95-based authoring tool for creating and maintaining
searchable Web catalogs. The package can also be integrated with electronic
Suite includes C1 BuySite (Proxy Catalog Server), C1 SupplySite (Multimedia
Catalog) and C1 REOS 5 transaction server (Realtime Electronic Online
Transaction System) for business-to-business electronic commerce sites
linking a company to its customers and suppliers. The software application
provides for product selection and price comparisons, quotations and
proposals, order placement, realtime order reconciliation, inventory
availability and allocation, final statement preparation and order tracking.
ELECTRONIC COMMERCE SUITE 3.0
Edition of the Commerce Suite is aimed at Web developers who build or
maintain highly customized or complex catalogs handling process secure
transactions. It supports high-end ODBC databases, ISAPI and NSAPI interfaces,
options for third-party plug-ins for shipping and tax calculations,
and a visual command language editor.
INTERACT FOR THE WEB
for the Web is described as a secure catalog and ordering system for
business-to-business transactions. It can create tailored Web-based
catalogs that allow customers to search descriptive information and
order products using a Web browser. At that point, the transaction information
is integrated with the vendor's electronic data interchange (EDI) system.
Data transmissions are encrypted, and the Web sites reside on a secure
server in the Sterling Commerce data center. Secure access and EDI processing
is handled via the Sterling Commerce: Network.
Elcom sells Pecos.net,
or the Personal Electronic Catalog and Ordering System, with Java applets
as both a ready-to-run electronic commerce application and a customizable
business solution, combining a suite of services and tools for tailoring
the application to individual business needs.
Step Search Enterprise
is described as a catalog authoring and database publishing software
tool for the World-Wide Web. It includes the Saqqara Step Search engine,
which can search for products. Step Search Enterprise runs on Sun Microsystems
Inc. Solaris and Hewlett-Packard HP-UX and uses the Oracle 7 database.
ELECTRONIC COMMERCE SERVICES
Services sells business-to-business electronic commerce solutions that
manage a trading community of more than 40,000 trading partners. The
GEIS solutions include EDI and messaging services, Internet and Intranet
services, and a full suite of applications for supply chain management.
The company offers electronic commerce applications with business process
consulting, systems integration, community management and customer support.
The NetHaven division
of Computer Associates was created to provide consulting, software and
services to businesses seeking to establish a presence on the World-Wide
Web. NetHaven uses the CA Internet Commerce Enabled (ICE) products,
including the ICE business-critical software for creating initial electronic
Palm Beach Gardens,
The QuinnCom Internet
Processing Center (IPC) is said to provide hosting services, including
hosting and transaction facilitation. Using IPC, QuinnCom can provide
retail business customers with end-to-end applications and a transaction-processing
environment that utilizes Internet based electronic commerce.
TOOLS AND UTILITIES
TOOLS FROM IBM AND LOTUS
and Cambridge, Mass.
IBM and its Lotus
Development Corp. subsidiary jointly market "e-business" Developers
Tools: The products include visual programming tools for building Internet
and Intranet applications. Tools are provided for tasks that can range
from creating graphics, images and audio/video content, to building
server-side JavaBeans that can access database and transaction systems.
The joint offering includes three packages -- IBM VisualAge for e-business,
Lotus Notes Designer for Domino and Lotus Go Pro.
ISG Navigator is
based on the Microsoft Corp. OLE DB. The ISG product is said to allow
users to access and unify databases and data sources used for electronic
commerce, including relational sales records, unstructured e-mail text,
multimedia product images, and the like. It is tailored for Microsoft
NT electronic commerce environments that access object data.
WebSpeed is described
as a development and deployment environment for building transaction
processing applications on the Internet and corporate Intranets. Progress
officials say developers in several dozen companies worldwide are using
WebSpeed to deploy Internet Transaction Processing (ITP) applications
that connect customers and business partners to corporate databases.
INTERNET EDI SYSTEMS
PC is used by the Wal-Mart department store chain, where thousands of
suppliers receive purchase orders over the TSI-based system. TSI provides
data transformations tools and solutions for integrating internal and
external applications for an enterprise. The systems include middleware
for linking intra-enterprise applications, software for transforming
electronic commerce data, such as EDI and Web based transactions, and
pre-built desktop solutions for large electronic commerce programs.
a business-to-business EDI system for distributors and manufacturers,
which integrates to the order entry system of a wholesaler, and provides
the server with access to up-to-the-minute information as well as eliminating
the need for updates between the server and host computer. Ironside
says the business-to-business system can respond to input over the Internet
in less than a second, permits line-by-line order entry and accommodates
individual customer net pricing. The Ironside System is written in Java
and operates in the Windows NT Server environment.
a HTML-based remote system for order entry between corporate trading
partners. It integrates with corporate back-office enterprise resource
planning systems, providing turnkey, real-time order processing and
management application. The company says OrderManager can be integrated
and functioning in less than 60 days.
Palo Alto, Calif.
EC Exchange allows
a company to transfer and receive funds and data from trading partners
and banks. In addition, companies can EC enable all trading partners
with EC Start without charge. Start enabled companies can receive both
funds and data. All transactions are handled by the EC Network, a virtual
network backed by UUNET Technologies.
INTERNET CUSTOMER TRACKING
Palo Alto, Calif.
The Autonomy Agentware
products track the interests and preferences of Internet shoppers at
electronic commerce Web sites. The Agentware i3 Server products are
said to allow operators of electronic commerce Internet and Intranet
sites to dynamically understand the interests and preferences of users
and can instantly deliver relevant information to customers.
Hit List 3.0 provides
continuous daily Web site visitor and traffic analysis data for sales
and marketing professionals. The system also compiles and displays data
regarding who customer buying habits.