Enterprise e-Commerce on a Shoe String Budget?

e-commerce on a shoe string

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While inexpensively built and operated mom and pop e-commerce websites are as common as snow in New England in January, is it possible to build and operate an enterprise grade e-commerce site on a shoe string budget? E-commerce at an enterprise level is not simply slapping a shopping cart to your website and calling it e-commerce enabled. The demands of an enterprise solution may require:

  • Integration with legacy systems
  • Integration with supply-chain systems
  • Support for multiple currencies and tax codes
  • Multiple store-fronts
  • Profile and history driven offer management
  • Integration with a content management system
  • Business user control over promotions and pricing
  • …and more

Challenges of integration with existing systems alone are daunting enough never mind the fancy e-commerce functionality that is often considered vital for competitive differentiation. No wonder why starting an e-commerce venture or an upgrade is considered a seven figure expense. The cost of an enterprise grade e-commerce product alone can easily account for twenty to forty percent of the budget. The other option is to go with a hosted or SaaS based approach and avoid capital expense for software and infrastructure – not a bad approach for testing the waters but in the long run, charges and fees can really add up.

A well executed e-commerce site can provide great returns on the investment by generating new revenue streams, enhancing existing ones, or reducing operational expenses – and that can’t be too bad for the budget or your career. However, in tough economic times the challenge becomes harder as getting approval for large complex projects becomes difficult and even the approved budgets can get slashed. If your budget gets cut, is there a way to still implement enterprise grade e-commerce? Can an open source e-commerce solution be the answer to the “do more with less” mantra? Is open source e-commerce ready to play with the big boys in the enterprise domain? Let’s explore these questions and the capabilities of the open source e-commerce solutions.

Let’s start with a common misconception that an open source e-commerce product requires significant customizations and the cost of customizations more than offsets any savings from not having to pay license fees. Implicit in this assumption is the notion that a commercial product requires little or no customizations. However, the real-world experience shows us that this is not the case. Even the best commercial products cannot be used out-of-the-box unless you decide to adopt their look and feel and their model of e-commerce. The cost of customizations can add up just as rapidly in a commercial product as they can in an open source one. Therefore a prudent approach would be to adhere to the industry standards and best practices and use out-of-the-box functionality in areas which are not competitive differentiators. Heavy customizations should be limited to the aspects of the website that are true differentiators and result in a unique user experience. This guiding principle applies regardless of the decision to use an open source or a commercial product.

There are a lot of inexpensive and open source e-commerce products out there; however, most of them are nothing more than a simple shopping cart. They are only suitable for the most basic needs of a simple web site. However, Apache OFBiz and Magento are two promising contenders that break from the pack and compete in the enterprise space. In this article we will primarily focus on OFBiz.

Apache OFBiz is actually an integrated suite of products that does not only include e-commerce capabilities but also provides support for accounting, order management, warehouse management, content management and more. An enterprise e-commerce implementation cannot exist as a point solution. It has to integrate and work well with other back office processes and applications. OFBiz’s integrated suite can be used to automate and integrate most back office functions. Even if you decide not to use the built-in functionality it can still be integrated with other existing systems albeit with more effort and cost. It provides enough e-commerce functionality out of the box to match most enterprise needs and the rest can be customized if needed. Here is a summary of our assessment of OFBiz:

Technical Capabilities

# Criteria Rating Comments
1. E-commerce capabilities B+ Provides Robust e-commerce capabilities OFBiz e-commerce capabilities include: catalog management, promotion & pricing management, order management, customer management, warehouse management, fulfillment, accounting, content management, and more.
2. Sign-on and Security B Granular and robust security framework The OFBiz security framework provides fine grain control of the security including multiple security roles and privileges. Roles can be used to control access to screens, business methods, web requests (URLs), and/or entire applications.
3. Technical flexibility & ease of use B Very flexible but complex  OFBiz is an application development platform that can be used to build applications and as such provides a tremendous amount of flexibility.  The use of the entire framework (which includes the database, an Object Relational Mapping (ORM) layer, business object layer, scripting support, and UI tools) is optional.
4. Integration with other apps and locations A Multiple integration methods  OFBiz business services can be exposed as services and accessed by multiple methods including Remote Method Invocation (RMI) and XML Web Services.  Integration directly with the OFBiz Relational Database is also possible.
5. Scalability A Highly Scalable  Java systems are highly scalable provided a production architecture that is designed to support heavy load.  A load balancing device and redundancy at the web, application and database servers can redundancy and scalability.
6. Relational database integration A Support for all major database platforms  The most popular OFBiz database platforms are PostgreSQL and MySQL (both of which are open source).  OFBiz has also been tested with Oracle, DB2, Sybase, and MS SQL Server.  The default installation uses an Apache Derby database which is not recommended for production use. Our research indicates some problems with MS SQL Server database – this should be investigated further prior to selecting that database platform.
7. Skill Set to support NA OFBiz framework and application are based in the following technology components:

  • XML
  • Web Development: HTML, CSS, AJAX/JavaScript, Apache
  • Java Development: Java, JSP, Freemarker, BeanShell, Tomcat application server (possibly)
  • Database Development and Administration: MS SQL Server (possibly), SQL, JDBC

Long term support of the application would require knowledge and familiarity in each of these technology sets.  While these technologies are mainstream and skills should be readily available in the future, skills and experience with the OFBiz framework that is built upon these technologies may not be.

Business Position

# Criteria Rating Comments
1. Financial stability B OFBiz is a “top level” project in the Apache Software Foundation.  The Apache Software Foundation provides support for the Apache community of open-source software projects. The Apache projects are characterized by a collaborative, consensus based development process, an open and pragmatic software license, and a desire to create high quality software that leads the way in its field.
2. Maturity of product suite B Open For Business (OFBiz) was initially launched in 2001.  In early 2006, the project went through the Apache Foundation’s “Incubation” process to review projects for quality and open source commitment.  OFBiz was promoted to a top level Apache project in December 2006.The community for OFBiz is very active.  The major web posting board receives between 20-40 postings per day relating to OFBiz.  The original contributors are very active in monitoring these sites and sharing knowledge.
3. Reference Accounts B- Total number of installations is unknown due to the nature of open source software. The OFBiz websites lists more than 70 companies that use their software. However, there are very few marquee names.

Implementing an enterprise e-commerce solution can be expensive and complex process that requires analysis and investment in people, processes, and technology. While it would be insincere to say that an enterprise e-commerce solution can be implemented on a budget in the ballpark of a mom and pop e-commerce store, the budget can be significantly reduced by:

  • Carefully crafting business requirements
  • Adapting the business model to match industry’s best practices
  • Reducing and carefully planning data migration and application integration
  • Keeping the customizations to a minimum
  • And using an open source e-commerce platform

OFBiz provides a viable open source e-commerce stack that can be used to implement enterprise grade e-commerce. When combined with good implementation practices and solid execution the combination can result in slashing costs by twenty to forty percent — which sometimes can make the difference between getting funded or getting shelved.

7 thoughts on “Enterprise e-Commerce on a Shoe String Budget?

  1. Hi Ahmed, this article is typically efficient and clear, congratulation

    Do you have same analysis or point of view on other e-commerce suite OpenSource as well as classical ones ?

    My list of potential e-commerce suite is actually : eZ Publish, Fatwire, Noheto Open4, Majinet, AgilityCMS, Cameleon PIM, Magento, xt:Commerce, osCommerce, Cameleon Channel Selling, ePages, OFBiz eCommerce Suite

    Regards

    Chris

  2. Hi Christophe,
    I am glad you found it useful. I have come across a lot of product and SaaS based solutions during evaluation for our clients.

    A sampling of commercial product offerings considered includes: ATG, MS Commerce server, Web Sphere, Macro Vision etc. A sampling of SaaS vendors include: Amazon, GSI, Vcommerce, Fry, etc. There are way too many offerings in the e-commerce space and the field is ripe for some consolidation. But there are only a handful of viable open source candidate for serious e-commerce functionality.

    I do have analysis on several others in the space but have been able to get around to put it down in a blog entry. I would be happy to chat with you about my experience.

    Can you tell me little more about the project you are working on and what your goal is? Perhaps I can help you narrow the list of candidate. Thanks in advance.

  3. Thank you Ahmed for this great article and for dispelling some of the myths surrounding enterprise OSS.

    The Criteria, Ratings and Comments are a great reference.

    I look fwd to your future posts.

  4. Ahmed,

    Thanks a lot for this great info. It is so hard to find information on the best tools.

    We are currently using an SaaS, called volusion but I see that when it comes to integration with other industry standard systems, it’s very difficult to do so. Have you any comparisons between Magento and Ofbiz?

    Keep up the great work.

  5. Pingback: 6 ways to get your web presence and infrastructure in shape for 2010 « Edgewater Technology Weblog

  6. Hello Ahmed and thanks so much for your article. I know this was written three years ago but still applies to folks like me today. I am in search of a serious robust website for a federal government supplier. We distribute goods for various manufacturers but would require the building of a website to make it so. Our client would be fed agencies, state and local government folks that simply swipe and purchase. Any recommends?

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