WebSphere keeps world of e-commerce turning

Multicultural support, seamless integration bolster global e-commerce initiatives

In the midst of an economic cooling, it can be pretty difficult to justify updating an existing commerce infrastructure. Nevertheless, IBM's WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro 5.1 delivers a solid vehicle for broadening revenue streams by leading global e-initiatives out of the stateside doldrums and across the big blue seas.

The Bottom Line

WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro 5.1

Business Case

This e-commerce component suite reduces time to market for deploying sites. Out-of-the-box integration eases setup requirements, and multicultural features enable global-commerce initiatives. Technology Case

WebSphere can be configured with very little effort or training. Building beyond the basics will demand an additional development environment, and catalog construction will benefit from a stronger toolset.

Pros

  • Supports global commerce
  • Provides out-of-the-box functionality
  • Contains many wizard-driven elements
  • Has solid messaging, payment, and reporting capabilities
  • Is available in a much less expensive Start Edition

Cons

  • Is costly
  • Could benefit from more catalog management tools
  • Lacks integrated Java toolset

Cost

5,000 per processor, ,000 per store Platforms

Windows NT, Windows 2000, AIX, Solaris

IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.; (800) 426-2255; www.ibm.com

This Java-based, e-commerce solution is an infrastructure for building, deploying, and administering e-commerce sites. It can integrate with existing internal and partnered systems, which can be easily expanded with add-ons to meet future needs.

WebSphere Pro includes many enterprise-level provisions and tools, including support for auctions, business intelligence, personalization, and marketing campaigns. Although none of these additions are particularly new, IBM has done a great job of making these functions sophisticated enough to address the needs of maturing e-commerce.

Version 5.1's improved user-access control and easier administration will help lower TCO, and cookieless session management will address privacy concerns, thereby bolstering shopper confidence.

Although workability of the new catalog subsystem falls short of comparable offerings in Microsoft's Commerce Server, the suite goes a long way toward surmounting the idiosyncrasies of conducting business beyond native borders and allows broad functionality to be maintained in a single, easily managed site. Therefore, WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro 5.1 earned a score of Very Good for consideration as an enterprise e-commerce platform.

At first glance, we found the setup procedure more streamlined than those of earlier versions. Installing the various suite components, including Commerce Server, Application Server, DB2 Universal Database, Payment Manager, and the HTTP server (IBM's adaptation of the Apache Web server) took just half an hour.

If you prefer, WebSphere can also be configured using alternate Web servers, such as Netscape iPlanet and Lotus Domino, or an Oracle8i database.

There are some sizable system resource requirements to consider, and we found no room for skimping on them. IBM lists the minimum system configuration as an Intel Pentium III 733-MHz processor with 512 MB of memory, but we would recommend something with more muscle, as response times from this configuration proved slightly sluggish.

Creating and configuring a new store was easy work, particularly when basing it on the sample store provided. WebSphere imports the necessary HTML and JSP files, catalog information, payment and tax details, shipper information, and more to build a complete store archive template ready for customization.

One of the most impressive aspects of WebSphere is the provision for global-commerce development. It enabled us to design sites that could be easily customized to meet requirements in foreign markets.

Parameters for language, currency, and taxes -- including value-added taxes, where applicable -- were easy to select. Other considerations, such as regional shipping guidelines and carrier selection, presented no hassles to our setup. All currency selection and formatting can be automated at runtime, providing context-rich page displays relevant to a shopper's point of origin.

Although the revised catalog subsystem provides advantages over previous versions, with capabilities for better product classification and grouping, we actually found the catalog development tools to be one of version 5.1's shortcomings.

WebSphere provides a utility called Loader, great for importing large catalogs of existing XML data into the repository. But Loader lacks functionality for such an integral part of a site. To improve productivity in first-time catalog construction or ongoing modifications, you should plan to invest in another catalog tool such as WebSphere Catalog Manager, an add-on that allows you to import merchandise data from multiple sources and lends tools for editing, proofing, and publishing your catalog.

Because the single sample store provided does not show all of WebSphere's capabilities, be prepared for a considerable amount of custom configuration and interface-integration programming. But that level of customization is precisely what gives WebSphere its edge; it enables administrators to build, integrate, and manage a broad range of backend connectivity issues and provides open-standards flexibility to meet future needs.

IBM has dispensed with support of the Net.Data scripting language and C++ in favor of a singular focus on a more ubiquitous Java-based runtime architecture, relying entirely on Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB), JSP, and servlets. The chosen lingua franca provides a powerful programming and transaction model and is a testament to Java's matured position in the marketplace.

WebSphere's JSP-messaging and integration capabilities can speak with a variety of existing systems, including SAP, CICS, and MQSeries, as well as HTTP and email. It also provides wireless support for custom notification systems via wireless devices, such as PDAs and NTT DoCoMo's I-mode-enabled devices.

The Pro Edition comes with none of the Commerce Studio development tools that are standard in the Studio Developer Edition. So if you're looking for a JSP toolkit or looking to develop custom servlets and EJB components, VisualAge for Java, part of the Commerce Studio, is well worth your consideration. The Application Server, however, does sport a number of wizard-driven functions, facilitating tasks from adding data sources to configuring security to deploying EJB.

We found site maintenance and administration to be easily performable via the browser interface, either on the local machine or remotely. The administration console provides good control over site and store parameters, payment management options, user and group access, and monitoring.

End-user tools also performed well. The Commerce Suite Accelerator is great for delegating the operational responsibilities of an online business. Users can work directly on merchandising campaigns such as up- and cross-sell offerings, build customer lists and groups, and manage auctions.

Customer service representatives can review orders, check status, and manage inquiries in realtime. Furthermore, administrators can handily assign and restrict user privileges and access with feature-by-feature granularity.

The latest WebSphere offers rules-based personalization support from two approaches, the Blaze Rules Engine seen in previous versions and now Macromedia LikeMinds. Blaze requires preconfigured rule construction and event-triggered actions; LikeMinds provides a more flexible personalization alternative. By analyzing a customer's purchasing history and captured clickstream data, LikeMinds can serve up relevant products and realtime recommendations to help improve sales. LikeMinds has been in use since last year in products such as BroadVision's One-to-One Commerce, and we've found it to be a scalable, highly effective means of delivering personalized, relevant recommendations on the fly.

Handy additions such as WebSphere Commerce Analyzer make it easy to crack open the wealth of useful information buried in WebSphere's log resources. The Analyzer maintains a separate database of store activity, customer demographics, and products, and it offers good reporting capabilities with the provided Brio Broadcast Server reporting tools. The insightful analysis offers realtime statistics on features such as marketing campaigns, which allows for fast retooling of strategy to optimize effectiveness.

WebSphere also includes a number of payment protocol options for the Payment Manager, including SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), cassettes for CyberCash, and SET (Secure Electronic Transaction), as well as MIA (Merchant Initiated Authorization) to securely meet your payment requirements.

The expertise necessary to master some of the advanced intricacies of WebSphere might prove too heady for the skill sets of smaller companies, but IBM offers WebSphere in a variety of configurations, including the Start Edition and Developer Edition, one of which will make an affordable fit to improving e-commerce profitability for your business. In the face of an economic cooling, that fact alone makes WebSphere worth your look.

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This story, "WebSphere keeps world of e-commerce turning" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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