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:
|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:
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.
|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.