Commerce Server: Worth a Look
Once you get past the onerous installation requirements, Commerce Server 2000 can help make you a player in the e-business game.
Is your company looking to build an online business? Do you need an e-commerce
site to take orders for your product? Do you want to start your own online
auction? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then Commerce Server
2000 may be for you. Commerce Server 2000 integrates well with the other
.NET Server products, especially BizTalk Server and SQL Server.
Commerce Server 2000 can be used to build B2C (Business-to-Consumer)
and B2B (Business-to-Business) e-commerce sites. Microsoft provides “canned”
starter sites that can be customized and deployed quickly to get your
site up and running. I’ve found these canned sites to be very good starting
points. Commerce Server also has a software-development kit for more advanced
designing. You can use Commerce Server to manage your advertising and
handle marketing campaigns, as well as provide data analysis and customer-relationship
management. Commerce Server 2000 uses familiar technologies like XML for
most of its internal code, and it relies heavily on Active Server Pages
for its sites. SQL Server is used as its data warehouse.
Getting the Ball Rolling
There are many prerequisites to installing Commerce Server 2000. You can
install all of the required software on the same computer or you can spread
the load over several computers. Commerce Server 2000 runs on the Windows
2000 Server platform and requires SQL Server 7.0 or SQL Server 2000. SQL
2000 is recommended for maximum functionality with Commerce Server 2000.
If using SQL 2000, be sure to install Analysis Services. Without this,
certain Commerce Server features can’t access the Data Warehouse (i.e.
the Predictor resource). Before installing Commerce Server 2000, you must
install Service Pack 1 and the following Win2K hot fixes:
You should also install XML Parser (MSXML) 3.0, Service Pack 1. I recommend
downloading the Commerce Server 2000 installation guide from Microsoft
at (www.microsoft.com/commerceserver/downloads/solutionsites.asp). I
printed it out and followed it to the letter when installing and didn’t
run into any problems. Be warned, though, the setup guide is 27 pages
long. I’ve never used a product with so many prerequisites.
When installing SQL, you must enable Full-Text Searching and mixed-mode
authentication. You must also install Analysis Services to enable Commerce
Server Analysis when using SQL 2000. Commerce Server 2000 can use Active
Directory for authentication, but it shouldn’t be installed on a domain
controller. I found meeting all of the prerequisites the hardest part
of installing Commerce Server. This is where the installation guide was
a lifesaver. The actual install was pretty easy, much like running through
the typical setup of any Microsoft Product.
Everything installed and ran fine. However, I don’t have any Web traffic
hitting my server. I would beef up my server substantially from Microsoft’s
minimum hardware requirements if I were building a production box. Also,
I wouldn’t load all of the components on the same box. Rather, I would
spread the load across several machines, with each machine having at least
a gigahertz processor and as much RAM and disk space as possible. All
administration can be done from your desktop, via the MMC, as shown in
Commerce Server 2000 Components
Commerce Server 2000 is divided into the following architectural components:
- Sites. A Commerce Server 2000 site is a collection of Active
Server Page (ASP)-based applications and Web pages.
- Applications. ASP pages are grouped together into Applications.
This allows management of all pages collectively. Applications are accessed
via a Web address. A typical site will have two applications: one used
by customers to order the product and the other used by administrators
to manage data.
- Resources. Resources are Component Object Model (COM) objects
used by the Web pages of an application and provide functionality to
applications. Commerce Server 2000 has two types of resources: Global
and Site. Global resources are available by all Web sites hosted by
Commerce Server 2000. Site resources are available only for a specific
How Do I Build My First Site?
The answer to this question is easier than you think. Commerce Server
comes with a tool called the Site Packager. This is one of the easiest
tools I’ve ever used.
It packages a Commerce Server Web site into a single file, containing
a .pup file extension that can move an entire site from one server to
another. Site Packager can also unpack sites.
Commerce Server 2000 uses Solution Sites as templates to build sites.
The only Solution Site that ships with Commerce Server is a blank site.
You can download two additional sites from www.microsoft.com/commerceserver/
downloads/solutionsites.asp. These new sites provide great building blocks
for your own site. The two sites are:
- Retail Solution Site, which provides business-to-consumer services.
This site allows anonymous access for browsing. Logging in is only required
when making a purchase, and users create their own user account for
purchasing. The default payment type is credit cards.
- Supplier Solution Site, which provides business-to-business services.
This site requires IIS authentication and allows both credit card and
purchase order payments. Self-registration isn’t allowed, and all user
accounts must be created beforehand.
Building your first site is as simple as downloading the above Solution
Sites and using the Site Packager to unpack the site you want to use (retail
or supplier). This is so easy it made me wish I had a product to sell!
To unpack a site, open the Commerce Server Manager as shown in Figure
1. Right-click Commerce Sites and choose New | Unpack Site. Enter the
location of the Solution Site File. You’ll be provided a wizard to guide
you through unpacking the site. After walking through the wizard, you
can view your new site by typing in http://servername/sitename. The default
retail site is shown in Figure 2.
|Figure 1. Although you can manage all of Commerce
Server from here, it’s recommended that you spread its components
among several servers. (Click image to view larger version.)
|Figure 2. The default site isn’t very exciting,
but provides a good starting point. (Click image to view larger version.)
The goal of an e-commerce site is to sell a product. In order to customize
the products that appear on your site, use the Business Desk administrative
tool. Business Desk is installed by typing http://server/sitenamebizdesk.
Business Desk doesn’t have to run on the Commerce Server; it can be run
on any computer running Windows 98 or higher. However, the computer running
Business Desk must have Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher. Business Desk
is shown in Figure 3. I ran it successfully on both a Win2K Professional
machine and a Windows 98 machine.
|Figure 3. Use Business Desk to administer your
catalogs, users and orders. (Click image to view larger version.)
A catalog contains the products on your site, grouped into categories
for ease of navigation. Business Desk uses the following components to
create your site:
- Property Definitions. These define the available fields for
a product or category. Name, Description, Author, Color and Weight are
examples of property definitions.
- Product Definitions. These define which of the available fields
will be used for the specified product. Product definitions are groupings
of Property Definitions. As an example, let’s say you’re selling books.
You may create a Product Definition that contains the Property Definitions
Name, Author and ISBN.
- Category Definitions. These define the available properties
for a category. Like Product Definitions, these group Property Definitions
After creating the correct definitions, you’re now ready to create your
catalog. Once you get the hang of how all of the components work together,
you can customize your site rather quickly. However, it took me a few
tries to get comfortable putting all the pieces together. The Business
Desk is easy to use and fairly self-explanatory, if you can remember what
each component does. Use the following steps to create your catalog:
- Create the needed Property Definitions.
- Group the Property Definitions into Product and Category Definitions.
- Create a Catalog.
- Add Categories to the Catalog.
- Add Products to Categories.
Bottom Line: Well Done, Redmond
Commerce Server 2000 is definitely a key player in Microsoft’s .NET initiative.
It works well with the other .NET servers, especially BizTalk server and
Content Management Server. Microsoft has done a good job of making it
possible to run a completely Microsoft e-commerce shop. The company has
a new partner certification, Commerce Server 2000 Independent Software
Vendor (ISV) Partner Program, which will enable customers to verify that
they’re purchasing third-party products that have been tested and approved
by Microsoft. This should add to the functionality and stability of Commerce
In my lab I have Commerce Server running on four separate machines, each
with different hardware levels. I found it to be very stable on all of
my machines, with no troubleshooting required yet. Obviously, this might
change if I had thousands of users hitting my site at the same time.
Commerce Server 2000’s scalability makes it easy to add servers as your
e-commerce needs grow. You can have one server running Commerce Server
and all supporting applications, such as SQL and the Business Desk application,
or you can put each application on its own dedicated server. Multiple
Web servers can then be grouped into a farm in which all the computers
work together to process a user’s request. You can then use Application
Center (see related story in this section) to replicate the site content
throughout the farm. This gives the flexibility required to make Commerce
Server 2000 a potential solution for both small and large shops.
I really like Commerce Server 2000’s Site Packager tool, which makes
it very easy to move a site from development (or staging) to production.
I also like its analysis and reporting capabilities. I found it easy find
the information that I needed.
I was very impressed with Commerce Server 2000. It was easy to set up
and use for basic e-commerce Web site design, especially its catalog features.
Within a few hours you should have the hang of adding and removing categories
and products, and catalog management is very easy. With practice and some
development skills, you could build a very sophisticated site.
Any company that wants an e-commerce presence can benefit from Commerce
Server 2000. It could benefit small and large companies alike; but at
$8,500 per processor, it may not fit well into many small companies’ budgets.
Commerce Server 2000 provides a scalable, easy-to-maintain e-commerce
solution at a fair price.