into E-commerce can have you going in circles. That's not necessarily
bad - you may not be sure where you are or where you're going, but there's
a limit to how lost you can get. Even so, it's natural to want to get
your bearings: E-commerce can be a dizzying ride. One report predicts
that online sales in just one niche market will soon reach $3.5 billion.
Another says that E-commerce will save businesses trillions in just a
few years. Pretty exciting stuff, and everyone in the company wants a
piece of it. But in the small print those same pundits suggest that the
costs of building an E-commerce site top a million dollars, that most
projects end up late, and that nobody really has a clue how to measure
ROI. Would the best thing be to circle the wagons and start shooting?
always, the way to get around the uncertainties is to have a map. Some
maps are very precise, which is great when you can get one, but when trudging
through uncharted territory its enough to know the major landmarks and
where they lie in relation to each other. Any topographic information
is a real plus.
map in Figure 1 is a guide to the E-commerce space. Partitioned into three
concentric circles, it can both prepare you for your trip and keep you
from bumping into the bigger obstacles.
Inner Circle (banish any thoughts of Dante) represents the basic infrastructure
- both hardware and software - that's needed to get started in just about
any form of E-commerce. You start walking counterclockwise from the place
called IT/Networking. Even without specific web experience the knowledge
already in this department will be the foundation for everything else.
You'll want to cover all of the bases to get out of this circle: Note,
by the way, that in this ring there are many opportunities for outsourcing.
Routers: You already have routers for your
network, but there are special models (and considerations) in web
Firewalls: Depending on the kinds of web usage
and applications, a router may not provide all the security you need.
A firewall - technically a software product but typically running
on its own small server -can offer greater security and flexibility.
Servers: The riskiest thing about choosing
a server is that you won't be able to get a reliable prediction for
the load it's going to carry. What you can be sure of is that once
an E-commerce site goes up, any little glitch is going to cause palpitations
in the executive suite. So you need to look at fault-tolerant or redundant
Mail Servers: A mail server is software, and
you probably have one already for corporate e-mail. But E-commerce
can inflate both the magnitude of e-mail and the functionality needed
from the server, so it's not safe to assume that the solution you
have will stand up to the job. Long-term performance considerations
may dictate that this live on its own server, but that's a decision
that may not be required at the start. Fax serving may also be a consideration,
especially in a B2B web site.
Storage Systems: Again, the requirements of
reliability and continual uptime may cause you to investigate different
models from the ones you're used to.
Web Servers: This is the software that serves
the web content to the user's browser. Unfortunately, while the major
players all have about the same functionality, this will prove to
be a religious decision (Netscape vs. Microsoft, open vs. proprietary,
) that is going to involve IT staff, programmers, and web designers.
These battles actually started up above when you picked the server
hardware, didn't they? Note, by the way, that you'll see vendor offerings
for "Commerce Servers." These are webservers enhanced with
support for certain commerce activities. Use them out of the box or
as toolkits for custom solutions, especially where a one-vendor solution
Databases: Another area where there is certainly
core competency in the IT/Networking department, databases can present
special challenges in a few ways. While the OLTP model is important,
many websites require that information be sliced, diced and extracted
in ways that don't easily fit the relational model. Also, the rate
at which they are hit can exceed what you've seen in traditional IT
Backup: Even something as basic as backup
(and recovery!) has its own web spin. The well known problems at E-Bay
highlight the need for redundancy at all levels, but unlike more traditional
IT approaches, there is no overnight window for periodic backup, and
delays of hours in reloading a database won't be tolerated. ("Dammit,
Scottie, I need warp drive now!" "Aye, Captain, I'll do
me best.") Meeting business needs here requires a combination
of software, hardware and network approaches.
really puts the squeeze on is the tools and applications in this layer.
A few years ago they were thought of as goals in themselves, but they
re quickly becoming de rigeur foundational elements that the business
side will take for granted in designing their web strategies. Unlike the
Inner Circle, there is no one clear path here in the Magic Ring. Any particular
site strategy might call for a different subset of these functions, and
might require them to be implemented in any order.
and Certification: Beyond security at the router and firewall
level, here is where one gets into such considerations as encrypting
credit card and other personal data, digital signatures and, in general,
proving to customers on a real-time basis that they're dealing with
whom they think they are.
There are a wide range of tools, from simple HTML editors to complete
web page development environments, from simple forms to complicated
Java applets or Active-X components, that can come into play during
the construction of a web site. Even when development is done outside
of IT, the IT department will get involved because some of these approaches
have server and database implications. And, as with the basic server
decisions, this is an area where religious wars can sprout at the
At web speed there's never time to test: Put it up first, and then
find the problems; if performance is slow, throw on another server.
Those who are uncomfortable with this approach, or who want to have
an approach more organized than the Hundred Monkeys Testing Methodology,
will want to invest in tools that test content accessibility, basic
functionality, and behavior under controlled load. For the rest, there's
stress testing - except it may be that it's IT and not the web site
that gets graded.
Management: If managing network configuration files and software
versions is getting routine, Content Management may prove a bit more
interesting. At the low end there's the problem of size. A web site
can throw up hundreds of pages per week on an ongoing basis, but those
doing the throwing may be writers or marketing types who've never
thought about the problems of cleaning out dead files and tracing
the chain reaction caused by small changes. At the highest end, companies
whose business is content (ranging from publishers to B2B vendors
to catalog sites) may be interested in tighter control of style and
format, and in easy repurposing. There are high price-tag applications
that do content management on a corporate basis. These may have enterprise-wide
benefits; they're sure to have enterprise-wide consequences.
Serving: A critical technology for almost any web site. Even if
your site is not serving ads, one needs to pay attention to this technology.
We're starting to see products that support your advertising on other
sites. (Even though your ad agencies will support your advertising
efforts, there may be some technology issues involved with bringing
the reports and the control to the right desktops.)
Reporting: You might not believe how important this is. In theory,
the basic reports could be developed from the web server logs by an
intern, but you'll find that many different departments want different
kinds of packaging and details. Traffic reports are their clue to
what works and what doesn't, and the faster they can find out about
a page that's too boring for people to read, or one that's a grabber,
the faster one can make changes that have a direct or indirect effect
on revenues. This may be the one piece of web technology that everyone
on the business side will use - and scream about when the reports
are late or inconsistent.
Mining: It isn't clear what the eventual name for this area will
be, or exactly what its functions will be. What seems to be evolving
is a data warehouse approach - that is, quick inquiries into a wealth
of information. It's built on traffic logs, advertising reports, and
some kind of real-time analysis that captures information about user
behavior that the other sources miss. If someone in marketing wants
to ask how many people saw the widget ad on the web newspages exactly
three times before they clicked on it, or how many times people will
search for something before they decide it can't be found, this is
the technology you'll need. It's an area that is intimately associated
This is in part the flip side of Data Mining. Given detailed knowledge
about how individuals (or groups with certain behavioral characteristics)
behave, how can we personalize their experience? More than a MyPage
approach, personalization refers to serving ads or reordering content
in real time to match these behaviors and get people to stay on the
site, click on ads, or buy. When a site requires registration or uses
technology to differentially identify anonymous visitors, the potential
for using mined data increases many fold.
How many ways can E-commerce create a message? Automated responses,
targeted newsletters, fax blitz, groupware, IP telephony, paging,
and who knows what else. Communication is still the foundation of
a business, and the Web only multiplies it.
Desk: A necessity for any business over the web. Naturally, the
people at the desk will need tools for accessing the various databases
used by the website, including the data about user behavior and purchasing.
- Relationship Management:
Part Help Desk, part Personalization, the term is used by some to mean
the kind of customization of user experience that the web makes possible,
and by others a natural web (or intranet) extension of traditional tools
for managing more direct contacts with customers and vendors.
An extranet can be an important way to create a secure, closed network
between you and your business partners.
At the very least you'll need a search function to help people find
things on the site. There are various options that differ on usability,
utility, and the way that they reflect your content. Some sites will
supplement their content with links to related material that's found
by searching the web.
in the fast lane are the applications and functions that define the web
site. There are new tourist attractions showing up every day. Since no
attempt at a complete list will be complete for very long, we've only
shown a sampling that covers both villages and the capitol cities.
A web site is a great way to gather information about things that
interest you: Just post a survey and get a few (hundred) thousand
responses. Posting the results on the website for users to see generally
adds more page and ad views.
Creation: Many web sites support forums (bulletin boards as they
used to be called) and chat. A good way to pull in visitors and sell
ads -- especially if your site won't be hurt when people exercise
their free speech. The technology here can be very flat or allow users
to create animated characters to represent them in chat space.
and Directories: Although there aren't firm distinctions here,
a catalog is generally a product list that leads to a purchase, where
a directory is a searchable database that leads to information or
links. In B2B applications a catalog may be hosted by the vendor,
by a third party that brings together a number of vendor catalogs,
or by the buyer.
If you're selling to consumers, the storefront is where you do it.
Storefront software will probably include support for building a product
catalog and handling credit card transactions.
It isn't all that long ago that eBay burst upon the scene, and already
there's packaged software that lets you put an auction on your own
A marketplace brings buyers and sellers together. For a company that
has a presence in both camps this could be an option for new revenue
and Billing: This really is the point of it all, isn't it? In
a consumer environment it's a relatively simple matter of accepting
credit card numbers and passing them on to a processor, and possibly
interfacing with an e-money or wallet vendor. The B2B world is quite
different, with the need to access back-end financial systems and
the requirement to generate reports that can be handled automatically
by your partners' back-end systems.
Resources: With rsum gardens like MONSTER Board and HotJobs,
there is every incentive for a company to do more recruiting on the
web. Placing ads on websites or in newsgroups is just the tip of the
iceberg. The more that resumes can be accepted from e-mail or forms
submissions and processed automatically, the faster they can be in
or Market-Specific Protocols: Global, business-to-business E-commerce
demands that information flow easily between companies and between
applications. And that implies standards, created by impartial groups
supported by all vendors. And that could happen? But until then we
get to choose between proprietary, vendor specific approaches and
vendors or partners supporting one of a number of emerging standards.
a lot of territory to cover when someone says "We've got to do E-commerce
- everyone else is!" But a careful approach, starting with corporate
and IT strategies rather than jumping into a particular application or
technology and hoping that the next 10 initiatives will plug right in,
always has been, and always will be, the best chance for success. And
you'll probably discover that E-commerce isn't really so bad - these days
it's found in all the best circles.
ROI: Return on Investment.
B2B: Business to business.
MyPage approach: providing users with a customized first page
within a website
OLTP: On-line transaction processing