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On Target:
Minding a Microsoft SiteServer Commerce Edition Store

READ THIS ARTICLE ON WORKZ.COM

Just about anyone starting or already operating a B2C e-commerce operation should at least consider Microsoft's SiteServer Commerce Edition (now called Commerce Server), since it provides the platform ubiquity and general cost-effectiveness Microsoft is so well-known for in other application categories.

Due to its prominent place on most businesses' vendor short-lists, Microsoft's SiteServer Commerce Edition/Commerce Server deserves further review. This report from the trenches is based on experience having led the successful implementation of two Site Server-based B2C online stores for different companies in vastly different markets.

I'll skip the war stories entirely and cut right to the moral(s) of the story, consisting of the pros and cons of this powerful though not entirely trouble-free retail e-commerce operations platform.

Have ASP Programmers On Hand

You'll need your own ASP programmer(s) to implement SiteServer successfully. In fact, you'll need pretty good ASP programmers. VisualStudio is definitely the required programming tool, and this is likely to continue under the new VisualStudio.NET, Commerce Server, and related .NET tools Microsoft has been announcing the last few months. ASP is reportedly being continued as the main MS Web scripting language and the main programming language for SiteServer, along with the new C# (the latter language's role, if any, in Commerce Server is unknown).

While Dreamweaver UltraDev and other leading Web authoring tools support coding in ASP, the code support appears less than seamless with SiteServer. Unfortunately that means that Dreamweaver and other applications that provide site templates for easier site management seem difficult to safely implement with a SiteServer-based site.

While VisualStudio is again the apparent solution here, one hopes that this doesn't force future Web site builders to limit site building tools to Microsoft-only offerings like FrontPage for the front end, and VisualStudio.NET for the back-end coding. In the meantime, plan on having your Web designers and ASP programmers spend some time working together to make sure graphics and layout appear as designed on those dynamically-generated Web pages.

No, Really, You Need Programmers

You read the white papers on Microsoft's site and it sounds like SiteServer/Commerce Server is the ticket to your success and glory and victory for the Allies, right? Let's just say those white papers are somewhat on the rosy side of white. You need programmers to live up to the promise in those papers.

Take the Promotion functionality in Site Server Commerce Edition 3.0. Looks great on paper and the app basically provides what it says-the ability to set discounts on specific products, groups of products, or all products, to specific groups of customers, by age, weight, promotion code, etc., etc.

Sounds perfect, doesn't it? Imagine our surprise upon finding that while it could indeed make these wonderful promotion calculations, it made them invisibly to the customer-they never saw the promotion, the discount was just calculated automatically. If left to that 'default' level of functionality the end result would be a very confused customer. It took a little programming to get the promotions to display properly, so the customer could actually see the offer being calculated.

Once tweaked, it's a very robust point-of-sale marketing engine and it runs well, especially for the price--included as part of the overall applicationat least in Site Server Commerce Edition 3.0-which compares particularly favorably when compared with other promotion and 'one-to-one' marketing software offerings that can easily cost five times as much. And there's an entire 'Personalization & Membership' component that's also included that we've never even touched. The point is that you can make the application sing if you have the ASP in VisualStudio programmers to tweak it mercilessly; SiteServer/Commerce Server is not a beginner's e-commerce Web site-building application by any means.


Might You Be a SiteServer Store?

You've got a more compelling reason to use SiteServer if you're already running Microsoft's BackOffice (accurately referred to as 'BackOrifice' in hackerdom if you don't keep up with the security patches for it and have a secure network in place) and other Microsoft tools you can leverage for far easier integration.

With the new .NET initiative Microsoft promises to provide a platform that offers modularity for integration of any component into any other platform, but it remains to be seen as to whether or not this grand vision will actually pan out. In the meantime, if you're a 'Microsoft shop' already you might as well download a free demo version of SiteServer and play around with it.

SiteServer is also an appealing product for companies that want to put large inventories online, as its strong SQL database provides scalability for hundreds of thousands of products. Online inventory, sales, and order management tasks are executed via a very user-friendly Web-based site management interface. With the right programmers, the basic product and sales management features included out-of-the-box can be expanded to provide greatly enhanced site control for Web site contributors and managers over site content, graphics, and even page layout.

Again, these 'included' site content management features provide a lot of robust functionality if you can milk them with good programmers, especially when compared with other content management applications that can cost 10-20 times as much as SiteServer/Commerce Server. Thus while the basic shopping functionality SiteServer provides may be rather 'standard' in terms of shopping cart and checkout features, additional features such as robust site and content management and a wealth of marketing and personalization options make the application more than worth the price you pay for it-with the key caveat that you'll have to pay the programmer(s) to make it work.


Security Considerations

If your site admin staff is willing to use Internet Explorer as the sole Web browser for site admin, you can secure the user name and password used to log in to the site management control panel. Otherwise the password gets passed over the Internet in plain text, as usual, so it's a neat little additional security measure to take, although it only works on IE.

Of course you should also make sure your database resides on its own server, communicating with the Web server by an ODBC-traffic-only connection. Don't try to save hosting fees by putting the database on the same server as the rest of the site, as it's just asking to be hacked. And don't store complete customer credit card numbers even if you have a distributed-database architecture, just because the risk is too high and it's generally unnecessary anyway if you're using a payment gateway provider for credit card processing.

Host commercially unless you have a very good network admin staff that can keep up with the security patches for IIS (Microsoft's Web server, required for SiteServer/CommerceServer) in addition to handling your firewall and other required IT security elements.


Conclusion

Once you have a programmer(s) that can make SiteServer do what you want, you can really wring some functionality out of it. We've managed to add a lot of site management capabilities for far less coding-friendly site managers to change Web site page layout, upload images, place Featured Items into specific sections of the page, sell gift certificates, etc., etc. We've integrated it with a retail operation so it shares inventory and sales information with the store's mainstay AS400 product database via secure FTP file exchange over a VPN. That now truly 'click-and-mortar' operation is happy with their new e-commerce operation comfortably integrated with their main business system.

For a comparable full-scale e-commerce implementation with SiteServer, you should still expect to pay from US$100K-$900K, despite the low price of the application itself. That price range is based on the assumption that you're integrating SiteServer with an existing business, and therefore customizing the business rules in SiteServer to suit your needs and otherwise tweaking it in tandem with the development of a graphically appealing and fully functional Web-based business that can be managed and run by 'non-technical' people in your company via Web browser. While you can buy the app for under $6,000US and rent it from an application service provider (the other ASP) for even less, your real costs are in the coding required, as with most e-commerce platforms. Prices vary widely depending on who does your coding, though at least ASP programmers are relatively plentiful.

Thus overall site implementation costs compare very favorably with some other e-commerce platforms that could easily run you double or triple that for similarly robust functionality. If you have under 100 products online and don't really need much more than a shopping cart and checkout process for a basic Web store, SiteServer is probably overkill for you. But if you've got thousands of products you want to put up for sale online and/or have more extensive personalization, subscription, or business integration needs--and a good ASP programmer--SiteServer's well worth demoing, at least.


Tips for Successful SiteServer Development

  • Don't use frames.
  • Have at least 1 good ASP programmer for the project (other good skills to have on hand are VB and a firm grasp of HTML).
  • Code in VisualStudio and minimize 'cross-coding' in other Web authoring applications (Dreamweaver UltraDev, etc.).
  • Maintain parallel Development and Production environments so you can always test your changes before putting them into production.
  • Force your programmers to use comments in the code, indicating what their customized code does and why, especially since they're 'under-documenting' their work as it is.
  • Test, test, test, especially across multiple browsers and slower connection speeds, since ASP performance generally requires optimization (a good free site testing template you can download and use yourself is available right here).
  • Look for a Web site hosting company in advance. It may take you a while to find one you can work well with. Start with Microsoft's own listing of SiteServer hosting providers at http://www.microsoft.com/business/partners/ecommerce/webhosting.asp. And expect to pay roughly at least twice as much for hosting than you see quoted for hosting on a Miva or Mercantec e-commerce platform, two of the most popular commercially-hosted e-commerce storefront offerings. Remember that you're paying for a lot more functionality, if you can make it work.

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