Independent, Bundled, or Coupled?

Oct 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

With e-commerce playing such a vital role in catalogers’ marketing mix, the methods used to manage Websites are now critical business issues. No strategic e-commerce system stands alone, however. In a multichannel environment, how you integrate your e-commerce platform with your database, inventory data, order history files, and call center affects how customers interact with your Website. ▪ When managing the back end of their Websites, marketers typically have three basic options: independent, bundled, and coupled. Let’s take a look at what each option entails.

STANDING ALONE

An “independent” e-commerce site is not directly linked to a back-end order management solution (OMS). Products are maintained on the e-commerce platform separately from other product databases (from which they may import data from time to time, but not generally nor automatically).

Likewise, all customers and orders are maintained separately in an independent e-commerce solution. While this data may be updated by other applications, the customer and order databases on the independent platform are not intended to be synchronized with any other enterprise databases. If you import orders from your Website into a back-end fulfillment system for shipping, you import them in the same batch-mode fashion as orders typically imported from a third-party call center.

Although this is not the most common method of maintaining an e-commerce Website for a multichannel marketer, it continues to exist as viable option, particularly for companies where retailing and e-commerce are bigger business drivers than the catalog. For instance, a retailer’s Website may be set up for store distribution.

It doesn’t matter, by the way, whether the system is custom-designed (either inhouse or by a third-party developer) or from a package vendor: If it’s independent, it’s independent.

BUNDLED SYSTEMS

The bundled solution is simply an e-commerce platform that is virtually an extension of a catalog OMS, written by the OMS provider.

When they were introduced in the late 1990s, bundled solutions tended to be simplistic modules that were limited in Web functionality. This is no longer true. Most of the major catalog order management systems today offer bundled e-commerce applications that provide as much flexibility and “eye candy” (flashy graphics and animation) as major e-commerce packages.

A key advantage of a bundled solution is that inventory data need to be entered only once. While there may be special fields required for the Website that must be maintained separately, such as some descriptive text fields, pricing and availability data can be managed in one place for both the Web and the call center. When changes are made for one environment, they are made automatically for the other. Obviously, you may also maintain products that are exclusively for one environment or the other, but all product data are managed in one centralized location.

What’s more, the bundled solutions typically provide a broader range of functionality, including product search capabilities, fully congruent with what is available in the call center than a stand-alone application.

CommercialWare, for instance, includes in its Order.dot.commerce module real-time inventory reservation, credit and fraud checking, multiple ship-tos, gift processing, special handling, coupon and gift certificate handling, multiple payment methods, and deferred billing functions along with the same upsell/cross-sell scripts available to the call center.

Its Service.dot.commerce module gives the customer online access to previous order information (with proper security and authentication, of course), extensive messaging capabilities, customer membership management, a detailed “order audit trail,” returns and refunds processing, and a library of customer service letters.

With the Order Power! Web Store from Computer Solutions, one database is used for the e-commerce site and the fulfillment back-end. There is no need to replicate data across multiple databases or maintain different data elements on multiple databases.

Order Power! lets you maintain up to nine Websites in a menu-driven interface that then writes the HTML for you. You can share images and product scripts among the sites or maintain separate items, prices, discounts, shipping and payment options, and log-on security access for each. Other features of the solution include credit-card authorization, gift certificates and coupons, drop-ship processing, continuity management, and EDI and fax management.

Sigma-Micro, provider of The Controller order management system, also offers The eController, a tightly bundled Web order management platform that supports real-time price changes, order verification, inventory, and order status. Users configure the system to support customer surveys, membership clubs, virtual store tours, gift certificate management, sizing charts, and other Web-centric features.

Like many bundled applications, The eController accommodates entry of catalog SKU numbers directly into the Web order interface or at the shopping cart. The eController also has options for managing e-mailings, along with reporting on Web behavior such as click tracking and shopping cart abandonment. In addition, it can automatically follow up on abandoned carts with an e-mail that includes an inducement to complete the order.

Another interesting element of the eController is that it accommodates full functionality when the back-end Controller system is down (not that this happens any more often for The Controller than for any other solution). For order status, it announces that a follow-up e-mail will be sent shortly. On inventory availability, there is a warning that the item might not be in stock, along with the reassurance that a follow-up e-mail will be sent shortly to confirm the order.

COUPLED SYSTEMS

Coupled systems are stand-alone Web commerce applications in which a dynamic interface is provided to the back-end solution. In distinction to bundled applications, in a coupled system the databases for the Web and the call center are maintained independently — though they are intended to be synchronized with each other — and the functionality itself is independent of the back-end order management application.

Put another way, you can couple an independent solution to any number of order management back-end systems, but you would not disengage a bundled solution from the order management parent system to plug it into another order management package.

Solutions can be loosely or tightly coupled. With the latter (which can come close to resembling a bundled solution), some aspects of functionality on the Web system depend on the OMS to complete, typically to provide data. The best example is when inventory availability is maintained on the OMS, and the Web system must query the OMS to see if a product is available.

With a loosely coupled architecture, inventory availability might be updated periodically (from every five minutes to every hour or so), with the e-commerce package maintaining its own “bucket” of availability data for each item on the Website. When the update takes place, the Website also passes back data on inventory commitments from its own allotment.

In addition to those two distinctions, there is the technical issue of whether the data being passed back and forth are in a “message” format, such as data delivery, or are more complex in relation to a set of functions the system must perform, such as determining inventory. If the latter, the system typically relies on a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) to manage the systems’ interface. (Note that messaging management is usually part of a loosely coupled environment, while APIs are generally required for a tightly coupled environment, though either can be used in both modalities.)

Either type of integration or coupling can make use of extensible mark-up language (XML) to facilitate data exchange. XML allows you to “tag” data elements to identify them by their purpose or type; this permits easier and more transparent data exchanges among systems. In traditional “data mapping,” fields from one system must consistently correlate to fields in another system. With XML, you don’t map fields but rather the data that those fields use to make the system function. That means that record layouts (field positions) can change in one system without having to inform the other, so long as the data used by those fields remain the same.

Finally, the coupling process may be supported by means of a middleware software layer, which serves as a translator or a gateway for the exchange of data between systems. Middleware is typically used to support loosely coupled solutions, but it can be essential in a tightly coupled environment as well.

Speaking of middleware…

Within the past year, CommercialWare has introduced its own middleware application, Integration.dot.commerce (IDC). A Windows NT/2000 system (written in Java and C++), IDC is implemented with a graphical user interface (GUI) and a data-mapping configuration manager that tap into CommericalWare’s library of APIs and menu of prebuilt integration options. The solution supports standard or XML-based integration with minimal technical investment.

Like other middleware applications, IDC can be used independently of the company’s OMS (in this case, Retail.dot.commerce). By the same token, it serves as an any-to-any integration manager (one that can communicate with virtually all other systems) to link an order management to a back-end warehouse management system, for instance, in addition to linking an e-commerce package to an OMS.

Another OMS vendor with a mature middleware product is Page, with its Synaro Integrator (SI). Written in Java, SI is an XML-based API and message management system that, like IDC, supports any-to-any systems integration. Integrated systems can be linked by a secure Web connection in a virtual or distributed processing environment. At the same time, SI can function independently of the Page Synaro OMS application.

In addition, SI not only processes, routes, and translates data in the format required for each application, but it also maintains business logic rules for these applications in a series of “connectors” that can support both loosely coupled and tightly coupled transaction processing. Furthermore, SI supports “derived collaborative applications” in which one system “inherits,” or borrows the functionality of, another system without the need to modify or program the dependent solution.

Of course, there are completely independent middleware suppliers as well. Two of the more prominent vendors are BEA, with its WebLogic application, and See Beyond, with its eBusiness Integration platform. These two products essentially do the same things as IDC and SI, but they are designed for very large-scale enterprise environments, or marketers investing more than $10 million in their enterprise system. They also come with preset functionality for systems such as Yantra, a supply-chain management solution with warehouse management and order fulfillment functionality.

Alternative alternatives

An overview such as this should give you an idea of what your options are. In that regard, don’t overlook the possibility of a hosted solution, or an application service provider (ASP). In effect, this option allows you to outsource the management of integration altogether.

Sigma-Micro, for instance, can manage The eController on its on hardware as a hosted e-commerce site. Other vendors offer the same alternative.

Another alternative is to consider an OMS such as OrderMotion from Transaction Smartware or I3C from Web-Ideals, both of which provide a fully functional e-commerce platform on an ASP basis. These applications offer a browser-based interface for an OMS that is maintained by the vendor. While neither solution includes a bundled e-commerce package, both systems are designed to link to any third-party e-commerce solution, in a loosely coupled or tightly coupled environment.

Last but not least, there is iCentrix, which builds solutions that serve as both fully functional e-commerce Websites and browser-based call center applications. Each iCentrix installation is tailored to specific user requirements using a rapid application development process. The bottom line: Integration is irrelevant with iCentrix, since you are using one and the same system for both environments. There is systems “development” involved, but in point of fact, integration is a development process no matter how you slice it.

Which method is right for you? As always, it’s a question of time, money, functionality, and reliability. At least now you will have a better idea of the lay of the land.


Ernie Schell is president of Marketing Systems Analysis, a Southhampton, PA-based systems consulting firm, and author of The Guide to Catalog Management Software.

So What’s It Going to Cost?

Integration has a reputation for being a money pit. And it’s true that in many large projects, the cost of integration can equal or exceed the cost of the applications being integrated — sometimes by several multiples. But the notorious cases in which this is true are typically projects undertaken by major third-party consulting firms, where the lion’s share of the price tag is for the services provided.

Independent e-commerce systems have a huge range in price, from several thousand dollars to several million. The cost to integrate them with an order management package will probably be 10%-20% percent of the cost of the e-commerce system itself, since we are talking essentially about batch data import and export routines.

Systems bundled with order management solutions range from virtually free (because they’re bundled with the package) to as much as a third of the cost of the order management system.

Costs to maintain a coupled environment are the hardest to pin down and can certainly end up equaling the cost of the e-commerce system itself. The same is true for middleware, although the independent middleware vendors are going to hit you for six or seven figures, whereas middleware from order management system vendors generally costs less than $100,000.

ASP vendors charge on a per-order basis, depending on volume, with fees that are considerably less than the cost of outsourcing order entry altogether.

So integration is certainly expensive enough to require careful consideration of your options. Then again, it should prove to be a manageable cost if you engage in careful planning.
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