Windows Sources: 3 eCommerce Suites Reviewed (1999)

The departed Windows Sources magazine from the original Ziff empire was a fun series of assignments. Here is a review that I wrote back in 1999 that looked at three leading eCommerce suites that were the cutting edge back then.

The first skill you’ll need to start your own web-based storefront has nothing to do with selling, marketing, or how to arrange an attractive online catalog of items. Instead, it is patience. While all of these skills are helpful, what you’ll really need is the ability to wait while you download lots of software to set up your web storefront. Why all the downloading? Mainly because there isn’t a single product that can do the job, and indeed finding the right set of tools will take some significant effort. To make matters more difficult, the price of tools covers anywhere from several hundreds of dollars to more than $20,000!

You’ll need a web server, of course, and you have your choice of several dozen on NT that support secure transactions. Then you’ll need to figure out how to connect your catalog, inventory and existing product information databases to whatever web server you end up using. You’ll also have to provide a way for shoppers to search for the items they want to purchase as they navigate your storefront. And you’ll need to implement a payment system to either accept credit cards over the Internet or else make use of one or more net-based payment schemes. Finally, you’ll need to administer these various pieces of software as your needs and catalog changes.

That is a lot of different pieces and products to manage. Fortunately, you can try out many of them for free, and download the required files and documentation directly from the Internet. However, these freebies have limits on their usage before you have to pay, usually 30 days. This means that before you implement any web commerce solution, you’ll want to identify all the various products you might need and get them to your hard disk. Once you install all of this software, the clock starts ticking.

Besides patience, you’ll need to be familiar with creating your own HTML documents and be able to manage and setup various databases. If you are still learning HTML or have no exposure to designing data structures, then opening your own web store will require learning these skills quickly.

While you might think that you should start by picking your web server, we recommend postponing this decision until the very end of the process. Instead, you should start by looking at database servers and their associated web-based tools. The core of any web storefront is how data is manipulated, stored, and updated. This data includes not only the items that you offer for sale but tracking inventory, orders, and customers. If you already have this information maintained in your own electronic database, then you should run your web storefront using this software. If not, then you should consider using Microsoft’s SQL Server, Informix or Oracle’s software, all of which run on NT. Why? These are the most common platforms for many web-based storefronts, and there is a wide selection of web-based tools that work with these servers. Pick SQL Server if you think you want to use any other Microsoft-based tools, such as Merchant or Microsoft’s web server. Pick Oracle if you can find someone who is steeped in Oracle’s plSQL language. Pick Informix if you don’t fit either of these situations.

Once you pick your database, you’ll next want to look at what tool to use to manipulate your data into web format. There are many different ways to go here, but all products fall into one of three categories: First are those such as Allaire’s Cold Fusion that add their own HTML-like markup commands to specific web pages, so that results from your queries can be built on the fly. These kinds of products are good for developing your own web-based forms, such as to search for a particular kind of product feature through your entire catalog. Second are products such as Bluestone’s Sapphire that are complete application development environments and allow for publishing parts of the database via the web. Use these if you already have developed your own client/server databases and need to webify them. Finally, there are products such as Oracle’s Web Server that extend the database procedural language itself. Depending on your own database expertise and what you are trying to accomplish, you may want to look at more than one type of product.

Now that you have your database decision, it is time to look one of the storefront software suites. Unlike office productivity suites, these suites are really more toolkits than pre-packaged software. There is still a great deal of integration, setup, and programming that you’ll need to accomplish before you can open your storefront. Not to mention price – while you might pay several hundred dollars for each single-function tool, the suites will cost several thousands of dollars – and in some cases several tens of thousands of dollars. Obviously, these products are for serious merchants.

The three leading candidates for NT-based servers are iCat’s Electronic Commerce Suite v 3.0, Microsoft Merchant v 1.0 and IBM’s Net.Commerce v 1.0. All three are shipping products. We should mention that Open Market, which has had one of the most expensive but also capable of merchant suites for Unix, should have a beta version on NT by the time you read this. There is a wide range in price among the three suites from a few thousand dollars to nearly $20,000. Setting up these three products is covered in our lab notes section, although we had to have lots of help from each vendor’s technical support teams to get our store running.

Overall, we liked the IBM product the best: it had the most coherent set of software, controls, and features, and came with both a fully-featured web server and database server as part of the package. However, both Microsoft and iCat have more third-party tools and support. We liked the shopping cart portion of iCat and the many different sample stores that came with Merchant. And we didn’t like the fact that Net.Commerce requires the IBM web and database servers to run – if it were more inclusive with other people’s products, it would be a hands-down winner.

Why would you want a suite? Several reasons: you need help in understanding how databases and web servers interact, and the suites are a good place to learn by example. Each suite comes with at least one sample storefront that you can modify and use as the basis of starting your own store. The suites also come with their own shopping-cart systems, making it easier for you to develop a way to track what a shopper chooses as she or he navigates through your web storefront.

Merchant comes with the VeriFone payment system as part of the package. This is helpful if you already have your own merchant bank account set up to accept credit card payments via non-Internet customers, such as those that call you or visit your physical store. Speaking of VeriFone, they sell a separate payment server that runs on NT for $2500 – this could be useful if you are concerned about security, don’t want to run Merchant software, or have existing non-NT based web storefronts.

Don’t buy a suite if you have lots of CGI and perl programming expertise, or plan on using a consultant who has these skills. The home-grown perl solution, such as for a shopping cart system that can be found at, can provide much of the same functionality at much the same cost. And you if already are using web/database products such as Cold Fusion or Sapphire, then you probably can duplicate much of the suite’s functions at much lower software cost.

If you don’t have the funds to buy a storefront suite and don’t have the programming skill to do it yourself, you might want to consider buying several single-function tools and seeing if you can knit them together into what you need. For example, you could use a shopping cart system from Mercantec, a search/index tool from Saqqara, and an accounting tool from Inex and still end up spending much less than the least expensive suite. Our table lists the various products that run on NT and which particular elements each supports.

At this point, your web server decision is easy. Pick the ones that are supported by your database and your suite of software tools. Keep in mind that you want a web server that supports at least one, and preferably both of the two common secure protocols: Secure HTTP, originally developed by Enterprise Integration Technologies and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), originally developed by Netscape. S-HTTP encrypts the web-based traffic between client and server on a page-by-web page basis. SSL encrypts more of the protocol stack and works on a connection-by-connection basis. Neither is bullet-proof against the most determined hacker, but shoppers like knowing that something is encrypted when they are about to type in their credit card number and send it over the Internet. Some servers, such as IBM’s Secure Internet Connection Server, support one or the other, while others, such as WebSite Pro, support both security systems.

The most common secure NT web servers are from Microsoft, Netscape, O’Reilly’s WebSite Pro, AOL’s NaviPress, and Oracle. There are plenty others to choose from, and you can view a long list at Once you obtain your web server software, your final step will be to obtain a certificate from VeriSign at This company keeps track of who you say you are and is necessary for making use of a server that runs SSL. You’ll need to use the web server software (both IBM’s Server and WebSite Pro have excellent documentation on the steps required here) to create a certificate request. Then, you’ll need to print out this information and fax your request to VeriSign along with information on your company’s letterhead that indicates you have the right to use your corporate identity.

As you can see, e-commerce covers a wide range of software tools, from freebie utilities to multiple-thousand-dollar suites, and lots in-between. There is also a wide range of knowledge between assembling some plain HTML pages and being able to integrate database, web tools, and payment and catalog servers together to put up your web storefront.


[lab notes]

Lab notes MS Merchant

Microsoft Merchant is a complex product to install and setup, and digs deep into the underlying NT operating system. Before installing anything, make sure you are familiar with SQL Server and have installed at least version 6.5 with Service Pack 1 for SQL Server applied. You’ll also need to become familiar with at least version 2 of IIS and have it installed as well.

The advantages of Merchant is that it comes with lots of tools to help you manage your store, step up your database, and handle financial and accounting of your sales. If you already have databases setup for products and financial systems, and if you can connect to these data sources with ODBC, then chances are good you won’t have to duplicate this information inside Merchant.

Merchant also comes with three different environments for development, staging, and production. You can post changes to your development environment. Merchant does some simple debugging of your HTML pages in this environment, which is a plus. Once you are satisfied with these you can migrate your data over to the production server, where any debugging code is removed. This has lots of appeal, especially if you want to test various storefront configurations and options without having these tests appear in your production online store. However, the migration is complex, requiring you to copy the database schema and its associated data tables, any supporting files such as templates and graphic images, and registry keys. All of this has to be copied manually using the tools in the database server and registry editor programs. That’s a lot of work.

Merchant also comes with a sample version of VeriFone’s vPOS credit card software. This is used to post credit card transactions to your acquiring bank and issue credits, although the version that is included with Merchant is missing these features. If you have an existing merchant bank account, you should obtain this software directly from your bank. If you don’t have a merchant account, then you will have to obtain one.

Setting up a new store is a multiple-step process: First, you use the Administrator control panel screens to make a copy of one of the starter stores that comes with the package. Microsoft has included four sample “starter stores” that have different item groupings and configurations: there is a sporting goods store, a coffee store, a bookstore, and a clock shop. We suggest you take a look at each of the samples to figure out which one matches your own needs the closest. Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match elements of the samples – you can only copy an entire sample store to use as the basis for your own store.

The Adventure Works sample store has the best set of advanced merchandising techniques, including the ability to support sales, promotions, and cross-selling. If you want to take advantage of any of these features, then examining how this store was designed is helpful. The simplest store is the clock shop, with only one type of product and a limited number of items. The clock shop has no searching or registering functions; these are implemented in the other two stores.

Next, you want to run the ODBC control panel and create a new data source name to link to. Then you’ll have to use a text editor to modify a series of four SQL script files, replacing the name of the starter store with the new name you’ve created. Then you’ll run these scripts in Microsoft’s SQL Enterprise Manager, modify the registry entries for your starter store, and restart the Merchant Server from its control panel.

While these steps are carefully documented in the Merchant on-line manuals, that’s a lot of mucking about with five different NT programs. We didn’t mind this as much as the frequent use of the registry editor to do various tasks, including modifying the behavior of the program itself. There are entries to enable cookies to store user identities, to enable SQL Server to startup before the Merchant service starts (otherwise Merchant won’t come up automatically when you reboot your server), to be remotely administered over the Internet, and indeed most of the ordering system itself. Using the registry editor is a concern because there is the potential to damage a working NT server – indeed, throughout Microsoft’s documentation are warnings to be careful typing in the various commands. We hope Microsoft eliminates the need to modify registry entries directly in the next release of Merchant.

Merchant can be freely downloaded from the net at, and is a 15 MB file that includes online documentation in both MS Word and HTML format.


Lab Notes icat

The heart of the iCat software is its catalog of items, and the software comes with a variety of tools to manage these items, design your web storefront pages, and track purchases. Like Merchant, you post any changes first to a staging database, and then when you are satisfied that your changes are correct, copy them to the live production database. This has lots of appeal, but is somewhat confusing to keep track of.

Getting our store setup with iCat wasn’t too difficult, but does require going through a series of four steps. Each of these can be accomplished by using a web browser or by working directly with the underlying database structure. If you have to make many changes to the sample store, you’ll want to work directly with the database itself. Once your store is setup and you have a few changes, you can deal with the HTML-based forms. This is because the forms take more time to display, fill out, and post the updates than the equivalent database-oriented commands.

The first step with iCat is to create your database. You can use the copy of Sybase SQL Anywhere that comes with the product or connect to your own ODBC source. Unfortunately, the Sybase software was not included in our beta. You can enter the promotional prices, discounts, and upsells here. (An upsell is where a customer is shown another item to buy based on something he or she has already purchased. You want the floor mats with that new car?) Next you design a series of templates, which will control the look and feel of the actual pages of your catalog that will be seen by your shoppers. Third, you specify the location where all the HTML pages, database files, and other miscellaneous files can be found on your hard disk. Finally, you set various sales options such as matching sales tax rates to particular locations and whether or not to make use of the registration, indexing, and searching tools in your catalog.

Many of these options are already included as part of the sample hardware store database, and it is fairly easy to understand how the store is structured and what pieces related to others by just navigating through the pages. For example, the sales tax screens matches a sales tax rate with a zip code. You still have to enter both pieces of information, but at least the data structures are specified.

There isn’t any wizard to walk you through this process, instead you have to visit a series of screens and fill out the web-based forms. It isn’t all that difficult, just time consuming.

iCat comes in two versions, a standard and professional. Even though the latter costs almost three times as much, it is worth the extra money because it runs much faster and is more extensible. A cottage industry of third-parties has grown up to supply iCat with various add-ons, including payment authorization software and sales tax calculators, and these add-ons only work with the more expensive version. We also recommend buying additional memory to bring your server up to at least 64 mB, since the software ran slowly on our Pentium server with 32 mB of RAM.


Lab notes Net.Commerce

IBM’s Net.Commerce comes with everything you need in a single package: a web server (IBM’s own Internet Connection Secure Server), a database server (IBM’s own Database 2), and the various e-commerce pieces, including a shopping cart application and a credit card number verification applet.

Setting up the servers should be relatively straightforward, but we had all sorts of problems and had to reinstall the product several times. Once we began the installation on a “clean” NT machine (meaning a machine that had a fresh copy of NT without any other applications), we had an easier time. The setup screens are all HTML forms, and there is plenty of help showing you how to navigate from screen to screen. IBM has done a great job with providing this roadmap on how to set up some fairly complex software.

However, a few tips are missing from the manuals. First we disabled Microsoft’s own IIS web server before doing anything else, something that the IBM support people recommended. We then created a new account that had administrator privileges – DB2 can’t install under the default Administrator account name. After rebooting, we installed IBM’s web server software.

You get the feeling that IBM is concerned about security, which is a good thing when you are setting up your storefront. One of the first tasks you’ll need to deal with is obtaining your Verisign SSL certificate. This is needed to provide encrypted browsing for your customers, but is also needed to get your store built as well. We liked this approach, even though obtaining a test certificate was a bit cumbersome.

After activating our secure key, we then installed the remaining two software components, DB2 and the Net.Commerce server, and rebooted. Not of all this is covered in the printed documentation, but IBM representatives said they were working on an extensive rewrite that should be available by the time you read this. Finally, we started the DB2 server, the web server, and the Net.Commerce server using NT’s Control Panel/Services applet, and began the configuration process.

There are four basic web forms that contain various controls to get your storefront up and running: System Configuration, which contains basic web server details on location of directories; Access Control, with user identities and password information; Server Control, which can start and stop your web and database servers from within a web form; and Database Management, which tells the software the database name and TCP port number. These don’t take much time to fill out, and there is plenty of help from the printed documentation that tells you the sequence of steps more explicitly.

You can accomplish the same tasks if you know DB2 command line syntax, but why bother? This is where the IBM software is head and shoulders above the Microsoft product. With Merchant, just about anything requires a trip to edit the registry, while with IBM’s software there is a reasonable graphical interface.

There are some rough edges to the software, such as dual-purpose error messages that betray the fact that this product originally was developed on Unix. And there is a “DemoMall” sample series of five stores that is included in the software, but unlike the other products you have to install the sample files before you can use them as a template to produce your own storefront. Making modifications to these samples is not well documented either, and not as easy as the iCat product.

Net.Commerce can’t be freely downloaded from the Internet. More information can be found at It comes with three printed manuals that are clearly written: an installation guide, a command and programming interface reference, and a very complete manual for store administrators on how to setup the software. The DB2 manuals are also available on-line in IPF (a Windows help file) or postscript format.

Microsoft Merchant Server 1.0
Company: Microsoft
Price: $14,995 plus $3,495 for each store
Availability: Now
OS Support: NT 3.51 or later
Phone: 800 426 9400

Icat Electronic Commerce Suite 3.0
Price: $3,495 (Standard); $9,995 (Professional)
Availability: No
upgrading to 3.0
OS Support: Windows 95, NT
Phone: 206 623 0977

Net.Commerce 3.0
Company: IBM
Price: $5000
Availability: Now
OS Support: Windows NT
Phone: 800 365 4426

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