The importance of Electronic Commerce continues to grow. EC product vendors weigh in on the future of the market and the best ways to get started with an implementation.
With Electronic Commerce (EC) seeming to increase its contribution to the bottom line at most companies year after year, its importance to enterprises is growing proportionally. Given the opportunities to do meaningful business at any hour, with customers or trading partners located anywhere on the globe, companies who ignore or shortchange EC as part of their business plan do so at their peril.
If your organization is planning an overhaul of its EC operations, or even belatedly just getting started, an overview of the software options available for the IBM i may be helpful.
Although EC touches on many functional business areas, here we'll look only at general EC suites and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings for general use with IBM i machines, as opposed to industry-specific EC applications or point-of-sale products. For a review of other functional areas closely related to EC, other MCPressOnline articles may be useful. For an overview of customer relationship management products, please see "Technology Focus: Apps for Managing Your Customer Relationships." For enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, please see "Technology Focus: ERP Software for IBM i Offers a Smorgasbord of Features." For a closer look at supply chain options, please see "Technology Focus: Keeping the Links in Your Supply Chain Strong." Although data security is integral to the EC process, for a closer look at those kinds of products, please see "Technology Focus: Encryption and Tokenization."
General Advice on Getting Started with EC
If you're just getting started with EC, a survey of opinions from four major EC application vendors in the IBM i market shows that the most universal advice is to recognize that an EC initiative touches nearly all areas of a business.
"Probably the most important decision is to recognize that EC is not an IT-only project," warn Lana Ho, director of professional services, and Paul McDonald, services manager, both at LANSA. "It is a business project where sales, marketing, IT, finance, and operations are all stakeholders in the process. These stakeholders must then determine the target audience and the purpose of the e-commerce initiative."
"First, decide on the scope of your electronic commerce solution requirements," agrees Jim O'Leary, vice president of product management at EXTOL. "Will you focus strictly on meeting immediate needs, or also take future needs into account, and if so, which ones?"
Ron Katz, president of ENTRACK, suggests asking questions such as, "It is cost-effective? Will it provide faster response time between trading partners? Will this provide more electronic capturing of data as opposed to a manual process? Is this utilizing current technologies? Will this provide a good vendor/customer relationship?"
Jim Scott, senior VP and general manager at ACOM Solutions, points to process improvement and return on investment as the most key considerations.
"Many companies underestimate the scope of an e-commerce initiative. The good e-commerce site represents the results of a series of well-thought-out processes and internal projects across multiple business units within the enterprise," stress LANSA's Ho and McDonald. They recommend asking such questions as "Will the e-commerce site represent an extension of sales or marketing or both? Will the site be driving new business or facilitating current customers? Will the site service a multilingual user base? Will social media be required as an important element of the initiative? Where will product and content data come from? How will the e-commerce solution be dynamically integrated into the existing catalog, ERP, pricing, ordering processes? Where will the Web-ready content, images, translations (for multilingual customers) be sourced for the site?"
"Decide whether you want to outsource the platform, implementation, and operation of your EC solution, instead of using in-house personnel and resources," elaborates EXTOL's O'Leary. "The main factors that drive this decision are personnel requirements, skill-set compatibility, time-to-deployment, risk tolerance, and budgetary flexibility. Decide how you want to stage capabilities over time. Staggering projects and phasing in trading partners, document types, and application interfaces lets you deliver important capabilities earlier, less expensively, and with lower risk than tackling your complete EC program in one giant project."
In planning for the future, O'Leary concludes, "Look at the requirements of your most important partners first, then look at the needs of smaller partners. Decide what kinds of interactions you need to support. Ask yourself if upcoming mergers and acquisitions might affect a need to integrate data and applications, or to synchronize databases."
EDI and XML: Not Exactly Competing
Aside from the strategic business concerns, there is at least one technical question that needs an early answer. That's what document exchange standards an EC system will need to support.
There are several major standards for EDI document exchanges. ANSI ASC X12, or X12 for short, is the primary standard used between North American businesses. UN/EDIFACT is the most widely used standard for international EC. Less commonly used are TRADACOMS, primarily used in the U.K., and ODETTE, a standard used in the European automotive market.
Extensible Markup Language (XML) has also increased in use in EC document exchanges, but not all the vendors agree on its importance.
"More customers are using XML for application integration; however, no two implementations have been alike," notes ACOM's Scott. "Unfortunately, without an 'across the board' XML standards-compliance initiative, this will continue to be a high-priced option."
"I haven't seen a huge increase [in need for XML]," reports ENTRACK's Katz. "Current EDI documents that use X12 and EDIFACT are more standard."
"We've seen an increase in XML adoption for EC, but primarily for application-side integration," observe LANSA's Ho and McDonald. "In part, this trend is driven by application-vendor adoption of XML, but we also see businesses adopt XML internally for proprietary interfaces, [and] because of portability, tool support, and other advantages. [Otherwise,] use of XML for EC documents is driven primarily by larger companies and consortia."
The Future Outlook for EC Apps
When asked if there's any significant difference between EC apps for IBM i and other platforms, the vendors cited agree that today there really isn't. O'Leary best sums up the biggest change by stating, "Years ago, businesses invested in tight integration between EC middleware and IBM i applications. Today, most businesses we talk to who have IBM i investments prefer to install EC middleware on less expensive Linux or Windows machines, accessing IBM i resources over the network."
When asked what the most common requests for new features in EC apps are, ACOM cites enhanced XML capabilities and HIPAA 5010 EDI compliance. ENTRACK notes new communication encryption methods. EXTOL points to improved visibility of EC content and activity data to better support service-level agreements, auditing requirements, and daily operations. LANSA has seen requests for Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance, social marketing, dynamic content management, and mobile solutions.
The most critical technology that may affect EC in the future is also the source of multiple views from the queried vendors.
Using cost-effective, PC-based translation tools is ACOM's suggestion. Communication features for the IBM i such as encryption is ENTRACK's thought. EXTOL believes the ways in which cloud computing will change EC is going to be a major issue. LANSA, perhaps a bit more ominously, sums it up this way: "With the on-demand expectations of the target market, the paradigm shift to an app-centric view, and the fragmentation in the mobile-device market, the ability to keep pace is daunting."
No time like the present for getting started.
Below is a quick summary of some major EC application and service vendors for IBM i. Obviously, these descriptions are incomplete information about the offerings. They are simply summaries of major features to help you decide where to focus your own research efforts first.
As always when looking for products or services, be sure to check the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide.
EC-Related Applications and Services for IBM i
EZConnect EDI/XML automates translation of business documents between EC trading partners. It enables direct access to multiple databases and applications systems, automatically maps documents from new trading partners without user intervention, and includes document-level tracking and auditing capabilities.
DataLink/400 is a data-synchronization tool that interfaces between DB2 databases and IBM/Lotus Notes-based e-commerce applications. The product supports real-time synchronization of IBM i data with online Domino applications, offers synchronization for applications that require disconnected users, and controls timing of data transfers through triggers.
ASSISTCommerce Suite is an end-to-end, cross-channel, real-time enterprise solution for companies selling their products to end users. The suite includes an order-management system designed to support multi-channel commerce activities between retailing enterprises. It includes features for handling customer contact, order management, inventory, fulfillment, and accounting, as well as offering multi-lingual and multi-currency capabilities.
Axway B2Bi runs on IBM i under AIX and Windows. It provides an integration solution that ties together software products of multiple enterprises, provides a data exchange via EDI and other B2B software messaging systems, and helps users manage business transactions and other communications.
Axway Integrator runs under AIX and Windows and provides real-time data control and transformation to help enterprises manage partner networks. It can process data in any format, including all variations of EDO, XML, flat files, as well as data from in-house applications and common ERP packages such as Lawson, Oracle, and SAP.
LexiCom is a secure data-transfer solution that can be used to support EC activities. It can interface to IBM i via a Windows PC used as a gateway. The product supports more than 30 EDI translators.
DPS Flash runs on IBM's WebSphere Application Server and provides e-business integration services for wholesalers and distributors. It supports XML communications, credit-card payments, order processing, customer self-service features, and security controls.
Ektron's e-Commerce is an accelerator for enterprises seeking to establish EC websites. The product includes prefabricated shopping cart, payment gateway, order fulfillment, and browser interface software components to help developers rapidly build EC capabilities.
ENTRACK EDI Software is a GUI that supports EDI communications and standards on platforms running i/OS or Windows. It supports numerous encryption standards, multiple-company operations, as well as VANS and private networks.
EXTOL's EBI runs under i5/OS, Linux, and Windows. It replaces conventional EDI translators, mapping tools, XML integrators, data integration tools, and web services toolkits and integrates with existing applications, data, and business processes to create simple point-to-point connections that automate parts of larger processes.
EXTOL EDI Integrator for i integrates external business partner transactions with internal applications and data, based on any combination of X12, EDIFACT, or proprietary flat-file information. The product also includes administrative dashboards, support for all major EDI standards and proprietary formats, automated trading-partner setups, and auditing features.
EXTOL EDI Integrator Option extends the services of the EXTOL Business Integrator product on platforms running Linux and Windows. The product provides a combination of integration services, tools, and metadata needed to create, deliver, manage, and maintain EDI collaborations. The solution extends the services and tools foundation used in EBI to support non-EDI collaborations and business integration.
EXTOL's EEA product family offers design-time and runtime interface components that integrate commercial application systems with external trading partners and internal applications and enterprise data, using XML, EDI, spreadsheet, flat file, and database content. Supported third-party applications include those from Oracle/J.D. Edwards, Infor, and SAP.
The EXTOL Portal is a combined software and service offering that facilitates migration to full Internet-based e-commerce by enabling communications with traditional VANs and private networks as well as Internet-connected partners and exchanges.
GSX, which absorbed Inovis in 2010, offers a wide range of EC-related managed services for companies, including those using IBM i, that want to establish an EC trading network. Services include mapping and translation, trading community management, technical support, data-center operations, and reporting.
IBM WebSphere Commerce enables construction and maintenance of EC sites for enterprises that include relevant content, marketing and promotions, and all selling business models (including B2C, B2B, and B2B2C) in a single customer interaction platform.
Commerce Server/400 is an HTTP daemon that gives enterprises the ability to conduct secure, encrypted financial and other transactions over the Internet.
Merchant/400 helps users create merchant applications that function over the Internet. The product accepts credit card transactions and authorizes or rejects transactions in real-time.
LANSA Composer for EDI facilitates integration of business-transaction documents with applications. It includes EDI-mapping and automatic translation of traditional EDI documents to and from application databases.
LANSA Data Secure Direct provides Applicability Statement 2 compliance for companies using traditional EDI for EC communications, as well as XML documents. It runs under i5/OS and Windows and integrates with existing EDI translators.
LANSA Commerce Edition is a suite of Business-to-Consumer (B2C) and Business-to-Business (B2B) components built upon LANSA's powerful, award-winning productivity tools. Using a framework approach, LANSA Commerce Edition rapidly generates IBM i (System i, iSeries, AS/400) and Windows eBusiness applications which leverage your existing ERP system. The eBusiness applications integrate with existing logic such as pricing and inventory allocation with real-time data access to provide award winning customer self service to your business partners and users.
MICROS' eOne Commerce runs on any platform supporting Java to provide online consumer EC services for nearly any business type. Features include catalog browsing, ordering, customer self-service, promotions, inventory checks, and customer information updating.
Suite Commerce is a SaaS offering that provides a wide range of customizable B2B and B2C EC services, including product catalog, site navigation, online ordering, inventory and order management, and online analytics and reporting.
EasyLink is an EDI service-provision arm of OpenText. Service options include an EDI VAN, EDI via the Web, a service bureau, and other managed services. Service offerings may be specialized or combined and support all platforms.
Psypher Security Suite lets users manage a trading-partner database of encrypted keys and security options to protect EC transactions. The suite supports hub-spoke trading configurations and multiple EC protocols, and runs on AIX and Linux as well as i/OS.
Alliance XML/400 supports EC activities by automating the inbound and outbound processes of XML documents and Web services. The product handles ASCII-to-EBCDIC translation, data conversion to IBM i numeric formats, field-length validation, Base64 encoding, and IFS file integration for inter-enterprise documents.