Building a comprehensive, powerful, and cost-effective Web site so your business can conduct commerce over the Internet requires careful planning and foresight. But before you set out to build an e-commerce solution, you need to ask yourself four questions: How do you engage the customer? How do you transact the business at hand? How can you analyze your e-commerce site? How do you build your e-commerce site? Knowing the answers to these questions will help ensure that your customers keep coming back to your site. This article assumes you’ve already planned and designed your e-commerce solution and focuses on how to implement your e-commerce site. You need to know which tools to use to build your site, which tools to use to set up and customize transactions on the site, and which tools to use to enrich the user’s experience (e.g., through personalization and promotions) while at the site.
This article shows you how to use Microsoft’s Windows NT 4.0 and Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 to host an e-commerce Web site, and how to use Microsoft’s Site Server, Commerce Edition (SSCE) 3.0 to create an online store. Features in all three products will provide you with out-of-the-box capabilities to implement integrated security, transaction processing, and dynamic content on your e-commerce site with little, if any, programming.
The first step in implementing an e-commerce Web site is identifying your system requirements. Your hardware requirements will vary based on the volume of traffic you expect your site to receive. To help you select the appropriate hardware for your site, you can obtain capacity planning guidelines by downloading Microsoft’s white paper, "Capacity and Performance Analysis," from Microsoft’s Web site. At a minimum, you need a server with a 100MHz Pentium processor and 64MB of RAM. For test and evaluation purposes, I recommend using at least a 233MHz Pentium, Pentium Pro, or higher processor with 128MB of RAM. For an actual production system, you might want to start with 256MB of RAM and load Microsoft SQL Server on a separate system.
After you identify your hardware requirements, you can prepare to load the necessary software. You’ll need to install NT Server 4.0; the NT Option Pack, which includes NT Service Pack 3 (SP3), IIS 4.0, and Internet Explorer (IE) 4.01; SQL Server 6.5; and SSCE 3.0.
Infrastructure Installation and Configuration
NT Server 4.0 is at the heart of this e-commerce solution, and you need to install it first as either a standalone server or as a Primary Domain Controller (PDC). To take advantage of NT’s security on your e-commerce Web site, you’ll want to convert the server’s partitions to NTFS. Don’t install IIS 2.0 when you install NT Server 4.0, because you’ll install IIS 4.0 later. Next, use the NT Option Pack CD-ROM to apply SP3 and install IE 4.01. Finally, install the NT Option Pack, which includes IIS 4.0, Microsoft Index Server, and Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS).
The next step in creating your e-commerce Web site is to install SSCE 3.0, which is a two-step process. You must first install the base Site Server product and then install the Commerce Edition. After you install the base Site Server product, you need to make a slight detour.
Before you install the e-commerce-enabled SSCE components, you need to set up a database for your store data. SSCE supports any Open Database Connectivity (ODBC)-compliant database, but I’ll show you how to incorporate SQL Server 6.5 into your solution. Start by installing SQL Server, applying SQL Server Service Pack 4 (SP4), and copying a new executable, sqlserver.exe, to your server. If you’re running SQL Server Enterprise Edition, you can’t use SP4. Instead, you need to go to ftp://ftp.microsoft.com/bussys/sql/transfer/sql318i.exe to download a hotfix for Intel or go to ftp://ftp.microsoft.com/bussys/sql/transfer/sql318a.exe to install a hotfix for Alpha. Configure SQL Server with at least two databases: one for the SSCE sample site data and another for the Ad Server component’s sample site data. You can find step-by-step instructions for setting up SQL Server for use with SSCE in Microsoft’s Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition Evaluation Guide, which you can download from http://microsoft.com/siteserver/commerce/30/gen/evalguidedocument.htm. Last, but not least, you can install SSCE 3.0.
When you install SSCE 3.0, the software sets up several sample stores. Each one demonstrates a different set of features available in SSCE. You might want to use one of these sample stores as a template for your e-commerce solution. For example, you can use the MS Press bookstore sample store as the basis for an online store or the MS Market as the starting point for a corporate procurement system. Your other choice is to use the built-in Site Builder Wizard to create an online store application from scratch.
Building an E-Commerce Site
Now that you’ve finished installing all the software you need for your e-commerce solution, you’re ready to create your online store. You can use two SSCE tools, the Site Foundation Wizard and the Site Builder Wizard, to build your site, and another SSCE tool, the Pipeline Editor, to customize site components.
The first step is to create a database for your store. With SQL Server 6.5, you must create a database device and then create the database. You must also set up two user accounts in SQL Server: one for the site manager and one for visitors to the site. If you’re integrating NT’s security with SQL Server, you can just map NT accounts to SQL Server. Finally, you need to use the ODBC Data Source Administrator applet in Control Panel to create a Data Source Name (DSN) for the database.
Site Foundation Wizard. After you set up the database for your store, you need to run the Site Foundation Wizard to build the store infrastructure. From the Start menu, select Programs, Microsoft Site Server, Administration, Site Server Administration (HTML), Commerce. Select Server Administration in the left frame, and click Create, as Screen 1 shows. You’ll want to create your new store in the default Web site so that you can use Microsoft FrontPage or Visual InterDev to edit the store contents. Next, use the wizard to select a short name and a display name for the site. The short name must be unique; check the list of reserved names to ensure it’s not already in use. You use the short name to set up the database tables and the physical and virtual directories. The display name is the label that appears on the site’s pages. Next, accept the default physical directory, select the DSN that you previously created, and enter sa with a blank password for the database login and password, as Screen 2 shows. (If you are setting up a production system, make sure you use a password for the sa account.) Select the NT domain and user account you want to use for your store, and you’re done. Using information you supply from the previous steps, the Site Foundation Wizard creates an IIS virtual directory, a physical directory structure, a SiteManager Web page, and an NT local group for your site operators’ accounts. Finally, the wizard will display a URL that points to the SitManager page. In turn, the SiteManager page provides a link to the Site Builder Wizard that you use next to configure your store.
Site Builder Wizard. The Site Builder Wizard lets you decide how you want to create your e-commerce Web site, as Screen 3 shows. You can select Create a copy of a site to create a new store using one of the starter sample stores that come with SSCE. Alternatively, you can select Create a custom site and answer the wizard’s questions to create an entirely new site.
Let’s examine creating a custom site. Although the wizard takes care of the back-end work, you must still answer some detailed questions about how you want to configure your store. You begin this process by providing some information on the Merchant Information page. The wizard provides the display name that you entered using the Site Foundation Wizard. You need to fill in contact information, including your address and telephone number. Next, identify your locale so that the software can calculate taxes and properly display time and currency values. Use the Site Style page to set the display properties, including colors, buttons, and fonts, for your store. The selections on this page are limited, but you can change the style later using a Web editor.
After you finish making changes to the Site Style page, you can move to the Promotions page, which lets you set up price and cross-sell promotions for your store. Take a look at the Volcano Coffee sample store that comes with SSCE to see examples of each type of promotion. You can skip this step if you want and run the Promotions Wizard later from the Site Manager page.
Next, use the Features page to decide whether visitors to your store must register to enter. You can set up your site so visitors must register upon entry, register upon ordering, or don’t have to register at all, as Screen 4 shows. You also need to choose a department type (either single- or multilevel) and decide whether to enable product searching.
The next step involves the Product Attribute Type page to determine the structure of your data. You must decide whether you want to support dynamic attributes (i.e., products that can have various multivalued attributes) or whether you want to use static attributes. If you decide to use static attributes, you need to select or add attributes that apply to your product.
Next, select the shipping and handling options you want your store to provide. (I’ll describe how you can customize these options later in the article when we discuss the Pipeline Editor.) Fill in the TAX: <country> page (e.g., TAX: USA) for your business locations, and select Payment Methods. You can choose to accept several major credit cards as payment for products on your site from this page. If you’re implementing a corporate procurement site, you’ll probably want to further customize this component with the ability to process purchase orders, requisition forms, private credit cards, and so forth.
The wizard’s next step involves deciding whether you want to keep an Order History for your customers and selecting which steps you want the Site Builder Wizard to perform for you from the Output Options page, as Screen 5 shows. Based on answers you’ve provided during this process thus far, the wizard creates the database tables for your site and can even load sample data.
At this point, the wizard begins performing its tasks in the background and finishes by displaying a page with links to your new site and to the Site Manager page for your new site. You can now browse your site, see sample data, and view the store’s structure. You can also access the Site Manager page, as Screen 6 shows, that you use to customize your site.
Pipeline Editor. At this point, you have two major sets of components, the Order Processing Pipeline (OPP) and the Commerce Interchange Pipeline (CIP), for your site. The OPP is at the core of your e-commerce Web site and consists of a collection of component object model (COM)-based components preconfigured to handle most common e-commerce tasks. This architecture lets you add and remove components as your business needs dictate and customize existing components. For example, earlier you selected which credit cards you wanted to accept as payment at your store. You can now add components to handle purchase orders or additional credit card types. The CIP is a second implementation of this pipeline architecture that lets you tie in to your business partners’ online systems. You can use the CIP to package and transport business data across LANs, WANs, EDI, the Internet, and other types of networks.
To customize a component within the OPP architecture and add an additional payment method to your site, you can either create a new component or install a component from a third-party vendor, such as CyberCash (http://www.cybercash.com) or VeriFone (http://www.verifone.com). You use the SSCE Pipeline Editor, which comes in Web- and Win32-based versions, to work with components. You must use the Win32-based version to create new pipelines, and you can use the Web-based version for remote administration; you can add components and manage pipelines using either version.
To add a new component in the Payment stage of the OPP, you can install the component to the Drive:\microsoft site server\siteserver\admin\commerce\pipeline configuration directory and either right-click the Payment stage in the Win32-based Pipeline Editor and select Insert Component, as Screen 7 shows, or click the Insert component link on the Stage2: Payment section from the Web-based Pipeline Editor, as Screen 8 shows. Finally, select your new component from the list of available components to install.
Note that the icon next to each component in Screens 7 and 8 shows that this particular component is part of a transacted pipeline (i.e., one built to use MTS capabilities). This functionality lets you roll back a transaction to a consistent state if one stage of the transaction fails.
Personalization Server, Membership Server, and NT Security
After you’ve configured your store and added any custom components, you’re ready to personalize your new e-commerce site. Keep in mind that personalization is not just a way to tailor your site for returning visitors. In a corporate solution, your visitors might be employees who need to access certain information according to their job roles. For example, the sales staff might need to access customized information or links to certain applications, and the human resources staff might need to access an entirely different set of information. Personalization lets you accommodate those different corporate needs.
From a retail standpoint, you want to personalize the shopping experience for customers in a way that presents the information that most interests them when they visit your site. You can provide this personalization by adding cookies to each customer’s system so you can recognize the customers when they visit or by asking your customers to register the first time they visit your site and log on during return visits. Both methods let you keep information about your customers’ preferences in a database.
If you’re implementing an e-commerce solution for a corporate intranet, consider tying it to NT’s security using NT Challenge/Response authentication. The MS Market corporate procurement sample site provides an example of this type of integration. Otherwise, you can implement security using Site Server’s Membership Server to provide membership authentication-mode security to register users, manage user data, verify users’ identities, and perform access control for data within your site. By having users register on your site, you can personalize their online experience and analyze their activity on your site. This functionality lets you spot trends on your site and modify the site content accordingly.
Open for Business
Now that you have your e-commerce solution in place, you’re ready to open the doors to your customers. Just remember that installing the software tools in the order I’ve described is important, as is applying the appropriate service packs. As Microsoft releases new versions of these products, check the README files and Microsoft’s Web site for new information. For more information, visit Microsoft’s Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/siteserver/commerce and http://www.microsoft.com/wallet.