This article reviews Microsoft Commerce Server 2002, one of the members of the .NET suite of server products. It is used as a whole-Web management tool for e-commerce sites, enabling real-time electronic payment authorisations and member-editable, user-personalised content.
Microsoft acquired Commerce Server when the company bought NCompass Labs. It was introduced during the Windows NT days, when it was used with Microsoft SiteServer to build and manage a professional-looking e-commerce site, featuring full security and user-editable content. That product specification hasn’t changed much—but the product itself sure has.
The primary feature of Commerce Server is its tight integration with Microsoft’s Internet Information Server and SQL Server. It acts as middleware between the two for the Web sites managed through it. Surprisingly, it does not make use of Visual SourceSafe, relying instead on its own internal versioning controls. This is probably a design consideration left over from the product original development at NCompass Labs. Now, let’s take a closer look at the product’s features.
The featured systems of Commerce Server are Profiling, Product Catalog, Targeting, Business Process Pipelines, and Business Analytics:
- Profiling system—This system allows you to manage millions of users and organisations. Each authorised user can update his own information and retrieve information from other systems about his accounts (such as order status, inventory levels, and credit limits).
- Product Catalog system—This system allows you to manage several different catalogs of products to sell online. The data may be exported as XML to allow other systems, not managed by you, to securely obtain product information. The XML data can also be used to integrate Commerce Server with BizTalk, making your catalog available to the world through SOAP Web Services. Web site users can search your catalog by category, free-text, or property-value criteria. The products and prices returned can be customised for a particular user or group of users. You can build customised reports concerning activity generated by Web-based product promotions.
- Targeting system—This system allows you to manage how various content items are targeted at specific users or groups of users. The content may be product or other information, catalog order forms, or advertising. Even banner and sidebar ads can be customised to fit the target audience. You can sell advertising space on a Web site and bill your advertisers based on any of a number of criteria, including on which page their ad will appear and how many times users click those ads. The various campaigns that the Targeting system handles can be scheduled to become active only during a particular period or to start or end on a specific date. Using the scheduling feature, you can plan and develop your holiday promotions long before the fact, freeing you to go home for the holidays (instead of working).
- Business Process Pipelines system—This system allows you to manage how various steps in the ordering process are handled. The graphical tool lets you link and unlink the different stages based upon various criteria.
- Business Analytics system—If knowledge is power, the Business Analytics system is your primary generator. This system lets you mine the data that is stored in your data warehouse, which could have come from a number of sources. Some features of this system allow you to manage direct mail lists targeted to specific user activities. The Business Desk application can be used to develop Web-based management tools for the entire Commerce Server system, including the Business Analytics System. Reports and interfaces can be customised and linked, and then published for use by Business Desk Client applications.
Commerce Server and the .NET enterprise
Commerce Server is a stand-alone application—sort of. It only requires Windows 2000, SQL Server, and Internet Information Server to run with all its major features. Of course, when you use it in a broader, .NET-based enterprise, it works even better. The following list outlines other products that may be used within a .NET-based enterprise:
- BizTalk Server 2000—BizTalk server adds the ability to work with other organisations information systems, regardless of their method of e-commerce. You can use this tool to work with third-party manufacturers and suppliers to obtain availability information or with third-party shipping services to determine delivery status.
- SQL Server 7 or 2000—SQL Server is the data storage system of choice for Commerce Server. You can use just about any additional DBMS (such as Oracle, Sybase, or Access), but some Commerce Server features are only available when used with SQL Server.
- Application Center 2000—Application Center is an extension to IIS. It provides extended monitoring, reporting, and diagnostic features beyond those found in the core Windows 2000/IIS installation. It is best used with Commerce Server as a point of publication from which your Web sites can be published to other servers.
- Host Integration Server 2000—Host Integration Server can be used if you already have an extensive legacy or mainframe system that you don’t want to convert to Microsoft technologies. Your current “green screen” applications can still be used and ported to the Web on Commerce Server.
Ongoing development cycle
One of the high-ROI features of Commerce Server is its built-in content management system. A simple, logical process of review, update, and publication ensures that the content presented to the user stems from informed decisions based on prior user activity and predicted future activity:
1. Data on user behavior is accumulated through users’ ongoing interaction with the site.
2. The business manager analyses that data and makes enhancement recommendations to the developers.
3. The developers implement the recommendations, along with any needed bug fixes, on a development server.
4. If the current implementation of the Web site on the development server tests out okay, it is deployed to the production server for actual use.
The cycle repeats when the business manager again analyzes the data that is generated by user interaction with the site.
Although the business manager will probably make site design decisions based on a number of sources, Commerce Server provides summary and detailed reports about personal user information, their history of clicks, and a transaction history that details their financial interaction with the site.
Other information can be generated through dynamic or static reports that appear as Microsoft PivotTables and HTML documents, respectively. A Segment Viewer can give you information about segments of the population that visit your site.
Numerous products compete with the individual features of Commerce Server, but it is hard to replicate all of its functionality in one manageable system. HomeSite, NetObjects Fusion, and FrontPage/InterDev Wizards all try, but for my money, Commerce Server is the only off-the-shelf e-commerce solution out there.