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Site Server minds e-store
--------------------------------------------------------- Tool builds, runs Microsoft-centric e-commerce sites

By Jim Rapoza, PC Week Labs

PC Week Labs Review Microsoft Corp.'s Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition is an effective tool for building and managing all aspects of a company's electronic commerce Web site -- as long as the company is comfortable using only Microsoft server products.

PC Week Labs found the suite of Internet applications, which shipped late last month, includes almost everything needed to run a large, interactive site, from log and site analysis for management to knowledge tools for integrating the site with disparate data sources, to personalization and ad management capabilities for the commerce side of the site. It is also one of the most extensible e-commerce apps on the market.

The requirements for running Site Server read like a who's who of Microsoft products: Windows NT 4.0, Internet Information Server 4.0, Microsoft Transaction Server and Internet Explorer 4.0. The suite works with any SQL-based database, but SQL Server 6.5 is recommended.

On top of that, all of the e-commerce capabilities are created using MS Active Server Pages, a flexible tool for building dynamic pages, but one that can hinder a company's ability to port its site to a different platform should its needs change.

Site Server 3.0 has an estimated retail price of $1,239 per server, which includes five client access licenses. Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition has an estimated retail price of $4,609 per server, including 25 client access licenses. Upgrades are $969 and $2,919, respectively.

New features in Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition include a useful interface for managing business-to-business and business-to-consumer sales processes, called the Commerce Interchange Pipeline and the Order Processing Pipeline, respectively. Also new is an ad server for managing site advertisements, and knowledge management capabilities that let businesses build powerful search indexes and catalogs from various data sources and make them available through Web pages and IP Multicast-enabled push.

Version 3.0's basic content management and deployment capability allows several levels of content approval, and the product has solid integration with the MMC (Microsoft Management Console) administration interface.

Building steps

Using the Commerce Edition's Site Builder Wizard, we quickly built a site following a simple step-by-step process. Although the Builder Wizard was a useful tool for getting a basic storefront built, it was less thorough and had fewer options then similar tools, such as the SiteCreator in Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino.Merchant.

Once we'd built the basic pages and product templates, we could open the browser-based management console and configure most aspects of the store. The pipeline interfaces in this console allowed us to build a customized order processing setup, easily configuring each stage in the process. We were surprised at how well the CIP interface worked when creating a business-to-business process, but companies will still need to build or purchase the necessary components for this, such as electronic data interchange integration.

The pipeline interface makes heavy use of COM (Component Object Model) and Visual Basic scripting to manage and create the necessary process components. Microsoft has added an open API to this interface that makes it possible for businesses to adapt internal sales applications to the e-commerce site.

Third-party vendors have also taken advantage of this API to create add-on applications for Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition.

Using the new Ad Server, we scheduled ads and managed ad information. With the integration between Ad Server and Site Server's new personalization features, we could display ads based on the user profile.

Although the MMC management interface is a very good administration tool, with a product as broad as Site Server 3.0, it can get a little confusing as to where certain settings are managed.

Site Server's browser-based management interface makes this even worse. Not every setting can be managed in each interface. For example, when managing a storefront, most features are configured in the browser-based Manager console but some settings, such as security, are controlled in the MMC interface.

With the Knowledge Management feature, we created catalogs and indexes from information stored in databases, Web sites, Exchange folders and file systems. We could easily search these indexes and view results in a browser.

The publishing feature allowed us to create a content approval process for site development. This feature ensured that all approvers viewed content before it was posted. However, the publishing feature lacks some advanced versioning and comparison capabilities found in competing products, such as Mortice Kern Systems Inc.'s Web Integrity.

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