So let’s say your company is convinced and it’s time to dip that toe. What follows is a guide to the technical aspects of creating an e-commerce site, from registering a domain name to accessing greater bandwidth in the event of a surge in business. By Jane Lewis
Step 1: the basics
Sit down and think about it – what is it you want to achieve? Advertising presence? Customer information? Or a fully transactional electronic shop? Will you want to be able to glean information about your customers from the site?
Given that it will be accessible globally, what languages will you need to have? Will the needs of your company change and grow over time, and if so will your electronic solution be flexible enough to keep up or is the IT department simply going to be cursing the day you were born?
Putting up a site is an invitation for people to treat it as a contact point – e-mail will be sent to that site, e-mail that may mean customer leads, or complaints, so someone has to be responsible for dealing with it, and the willing technician who built the site is unlikely to be the one.
If you create your own site how are you going to control access to it? If your company is mentioned on TV and 40,000 people try to access the site at once what will happen? Will it crash or be swamped by the number of access attempts, creating an impression of unreliability among potential customers?
Step 2: the web server
Every home page needs a home, and that home is the Web server. Because a server is a computer that feeds information to a number of “client” computers this usually means an Arnold Schwarzenegger of a machine, pumped up with as much processing power, memory and storage space as budget permits.
That machine needs to be connected to the Web, and since you are in effect inviting the whole world to your home, the doorway to the information on the server has to be big enough to take the crush. This means a simple telephone line will not be enough, so you will need greater bandwidth access – that is, able to take a far larger amount of information flow. That in turn usually translates to very fast phone lines, so if you don’t have access to fast leased lines then you risk creating a bottleneck between your site and the information superhighway. If all this is sounding increasingly costly and time-consuming, go to step 6 now.
Step 3: the hardware
Having the hardware is not enough. If there is nothing to see then there’s not much point building a track, let alone a superhighway to your digital door. The “front end” is basically the bit the user sees – that combination of interface and layout that people will see and think of as your site.
Before announcing your presence on-line you will need a suitable server operating system such as Windows NT or Linux which are robust and flexible enough to handle the demand should the world choose to beat a path to your door. Sitting on top of that will be the application itself, either a simple Web site built with HTML (Hypertext Markup Language – the lingo that describes all page layout for Web pages).
To have a site a company first registers its domain name, for example www.mycompany.co.uk, with a domain name registry in order to have a virtual “address” to build its site on.
There are software packages such as Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia DreamWeaver which enable even relative beginners to create attractive sites. There are even packages such as Click and Build from WorldPay which are intended to enable newcomers to build entire virtual “shops” by following a step-by-step guide, like the “wizards” in wordprocessors.
Beware however, that once you start to create shops, the need to process data and serve up the right information leads to contact with the “back end” and the transactional process.
Step 4: software – back end
The back end is your existing system, that collection of information vital to running a company, probably a large database. In order for the more complex e-commerce projects to function they usually need access to this database to get such details as pricing and inventory.
It doesn’t matter how pretty the front end (above) is if it is too dumb to talk to the back end, and that is done through communications software called middleware. Since the front end tends to be fresh out of the box and the back end tends to be as old as the hills, the problems involved in middleware can be tough, so finding middleware experts is increasingly difficult and therefore pricey.
Step 5: software transaction
Transactions involve security – or at least they do for anyone wishing to stay in business. This is normally provided in the form of SSL (secure socket layer) which is a way of protecting a shopping “session” by encrypting data such as order details and credit card numbers while the information is in transit.
To allow for on-line credit validation, those details have to be passed on via a live link to an on-line banking system, and it is a rare company that can put all of the above in place itself. Which brings us to step 6.
Step 6: getting an ISP to host your site
ISPs – Internet Service Providers – are the companies which provide access to the Internet. When you dial up using a modem you are connecting to a bank of modems and servers at an ISP which then connects you to the fast “backbone” network at the heart of the Internet.
As well as providing simple access, ISPs can provide hosting, whereby your site sits on space on one of their servers and they ensure there is enough bandwidth to allow access for your customers. They then run the server and site for you, sending back all transactional information as well as a daily log to your own business’s IT system.
Because of the degree of expertise, and the economies of scale, it is usually better for all but extremely IT-savvy companies to leave hosting their e-commerce venture to an ISP.
You will also need to know if your ISP can access greater bandwidth in the event of surge in demand. If you attract that surge in attention, due to a marketing campaign for example, will you be penalised for taking up larger bandwidth – or, worse, will access be restricted. If your ISP does not have unlimited bandwidth, can it guarantee a “First Class” approach whereby a premium customer will always be given priority over others when bandwidth becomes scarce?
Before putting your business on-line with a partner you should have cast-iron guarantees of access levels and service costs.
You would also be wise to thrash out what feedback the ISP will offer you about your visitors as well as its policy on other sites it may host. If it has no policy then you may find yourself sharing server space – and possibly unlooked-for publicity – with undesirable sites.
Step 7: ISP services
ISPs will also offer further services such as site design and the creation of on-line shops. ISPs vary from garage operations offering little more than Net access, to large corporations more than capable of designing and implementing an e-commerce for you, so it is important to get a feel for their real expertise by seeing what they do for others. Many ISPs focus on the infrastructure, which means that when it comes to design they actually field it out to third-party designers, so it’s also key to know who will be on the team for your project.
Step 8: outsourcing
At the top end of the scale are the large corporate consultancies such as IBM, ICL, and Hewlett-Packard which will simply take the whole business out of your hands and not only advise you on the possibilities of e-commerce but design, create, secure and maintain your e-commerce for an all-in, but not inconsiderable, price.
HP, for instance, as one of the more innovative e-service providers, has a “product” called e-mporium whereby, for a flat fee of £90,000, it will create, secure and host a fully transactional e-commerce site for you for six months.
If, after considering all the above, your company is still tempted by the idea of creating its own site in-house then presumably it is because you have a vast and scalable IT infrastructure of near-unlimited server space and bandwidth, not to mention a pool of intensely loyal e-commerce experienced IT staff. If you don’t and are hoping to conduct transactions using only the PC under the desk, with a copy of WorldPay’s Click and Build, then the chances are that you have forgotten to ask yourself the number one question of e-commerce.
Perhaps it is forgivable given all the scaremongers telling us that UK business will vanish if it does not take the plunge, but oddly enough the most common e-commerce site problems – under-capacity, insecurity, instability and so on – all stem from a failure to ask that one question. That question, simply enough, is, “What will happen if it’s a success?”
Tips to think of when talking to e-commerce partners
• Implementing a strategy. Any business looking at creating a Web presence should ask if this is their core business, and if not then outsourcing should be considered.
• Outsourcing. When looking at potential outsourcing partners, experience is everything. What have they done before? Is that experience relevant to your goals? Are they still on good terms with previous clients?
• Meeting expectations. When talking to them note how far they are asking what you want and how far they are trying to lead you into what they can do.
• Troubleshooting. If they are considering what you want, are they then anticipating potential stumbling blocks?
• Keep it simple. Having selected partners for their experience, be guided by their advice. It is common for Web newcomers to want to overload sites with information or unnecessary “bells and whistles”. Be prepared to rethink and scale down ambitions if the developers have good reasons why you should.
• Think ahead. Can the site you want today be expanded to encompass future needs such as capturing information about users or conducting transactions?
• Marketing. Having created a site how will you let the world know about it? Does the developer have links to above- or below-the-line marketeers and advertisers? Can they advise you on publicising your presence?
Case study: IPC Electric
Outsource to focus on the job in hand
Even very large companies with experience are opting to outsource. Rene Carayol is the CEO of IPC Electric, the newly spun-off on-line arm of publishing giant IPC. “We had four years of Web publishing, most of which was done in-house, and we found that when you get problems it deflects management time and thinking. We wanted to focus on the job in hand, giving ourselves time to think and not always being in the position of reacting to problems with the Web,” he says.
Carayol decided that doing all the development in-house was diverting the company from its core business, and creating a personnel problem into the bargain. “With a small technical team you are in the never-ending training debacle since if someone leaves then you’re in trouble.”
IPC’s response was to take its e-commerce requirements to a third party, in this case IT company Hewlett-Packard. As Carayol puts it, “It is a question of make or buy, and why would you want to make it? I can’t think of a single reason and you can always ask of a supplier what you wouldn’t ask your team.”
IPC’s deal with HP is that HP supplies the infrastructure, the servers, the bandwidth, the security and the transactions, while IPC Electric gets on with the business of publishing. Because HP has the capacity to ramp bandwidth up at short notice they also have an agreement where extra demand is catered for and IPC pays for it accordingly, much as it would pay for any other utility where demand varies.