Choices, choices

A suck-it-and-see approach to choosing an e-business system simply will not do. Nick Booth offers tips on making an informed...

A suck-it-and-see approach to choosing an e-business system simply will not do. Nick Booth offers tips on making an informed decision

If you have been given the responsibility of choosing the e-business system for your company, I truly feel sorry for you. This would be frightening enough for anyone with good technical knowledge and years of experience tracking the IT industry. But, since most people take on the project of an e-business system to further their careers in sales or marketing, the prospect is more daunting.

The problem is that the market is too immature and operates on too many different levels. It is like the early days of the Internet - everyone is in the e-business market to make money but nobody has any certainty about what will be profitable.

There is no way any company could supply all the applications needed for every function of e-business. In fact, very few offer more than one. So choosing an e-business system involves integration.

You could leave all this to an application service provider (ASP), but this market is even less advanced than e-commerce. This means whoever is handed the poisoned chalice of project managing an e-business has many questions to ask potential suppliers.

"The main consideration when choosing a system is flexibility," says Anthony Chrumka, management consultant with Computer Management Group (CMG). "You want something that is going to grow as your base grows. More importantly, you want something that will fit in with all the different elements that make up e-business."

From a technical view, you will be underwhelmed by the complexity of providing the underlying computing platform. Applications can be driven by machines running Unix or NT. It does not matter which. Most people use a combination of Unix and NT across their network.

But deciding which applications to use is where the immaturity of the market makes it complicated.

Since there is no leadership and no supplier offers a complete e-commerce system, there are conflicting messages. "Vendors are not making it easy for customers because they all have an e-commerce story featuring themselves as the central character, but none of them is presenting the true version of events," says Gary Barnett of analyst firm Ovum.

Every software supplier wants to be the hub around which all other applications revolve. In reality, there are three major categories of e-commerce application: application servers, content management and commerce management. All of which could form the pillars of e-business.

At each level, there is plenty of technical differentiation by suppliers competing to offer the best technology. Like most IT decisions, the strategy should boil down to which supplier is most likely to prevail, rather than which has the most sophisticated technology.

Application servers are the e-business software platforms. This area is dominated by the traditional software giants. IBM, Oracle, Sun, Microsoft and BEA can all be trusted to provide adequate operational tools for running services. Importantly, they are not going to go out of business or take part in any mergers in which your technology platform is suddenly discontinued. Sadly, none of these suppliers has fully embraced the ethos of the Internet, so application servers tend to be proprietary.

For a business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce system, the choice of application server is the most crucial. A strategic choice of supplier saves many integration issues and Oracle is well positioned.

"Anyone looking at e-business should strive for as few moving parts as possible," says Gary Pugh, Oracle's data service marketing manager. "The fewer components you have, the fewer integration issues there are, and the less that can go wrong."

Beware of acquisitive suppliers. Companies that develop a portfolio of e-business applications by buying rivals in other sectors will rarely have an integrated suite. "If the logos on the box are different, you could be in trouble," says Pugh.

In B2B systems, like trading hubs or supply chain environments, integrating with other systems is crucial.

To some extent, your choice of supplier should hinge on what fits best with your peers in the supply chain. If everyone else is with Oracle or Ariba, your choice has been made. In some vertical markets, particular suppliers dominate. The motor industry, for example, tends to conform to specifications of enterprise resource planning specialist SAP.

Content management and commercial management software are not so important in B2B systems since the content of an electronic trading system hardly changes due to the number of customers and range of products remaining fairly constant. In business-to-consumer (B2C) transactions though, they are crucial. There is an unlimited number of customers for whom you may wish to personalise content.

Content management is one area that has unexpectedly caused problems for e-businesses. "Many companies have been surprised by the work that goes into managing the content they have to produce for a business system. They started out thinking they were an e-business, but ended up spending more time producing content for sites," says Alan Cornwell, vice-president of international sales at content management systems supplier Open Market.

This is a phenomenon that research company Forrester has coined "the accidental publisher". Its study found that 80% of businesses have become wholly dissatisfied with the direction their e-business took.

OpenMarket, along with rivals Broadvision and Vignette, has a product portfolio covering content and commercial management. But these are not necessarily the best candidates for a "joined-up"e-commerce system. Broadvision is good at personalising the delivery of content, but Interleaf, the product it acquired for commerce management, has yet to be proved to be wholly integrated. It does have a recognised asset in its fulfilment system, though.

"At this level, no company has a strong product for each function," says analyst Nigel Montgomery of AMR Research. "Just to complicate things, there are compatibility issues between application servers and management systems."

Chrumka disagrees. "There is a lot of mixing and matching. You can switch allegiance to a content manager easily, for example. The good thing about e-commerce is that it is based on the Internet standard and the technology has been around for decades."

In theory that is true, agrees Montgomery, but this illustrates the difference between what suppliers say when investigating a system and what practical experience reveals. "All e-business tools should run on any application server. There should not be any compatibility issues. But, in practice, if you have an IBM server, it might be good to run Vignette over it for commercial management. You might find it works much easier than other choices," he says.

Some integration is inevitable, but application suppliers offer pre-integration with the most popular combinations. SAP (which is good for enterprise resource planning) fits well with I2's supply chain software. A similar amount of synergy exists between SAP and Broadvision, which is popular in enterprise relationship management and most e-commerce applications. Typically, this covers 80% of your needs. The rest of the knitting together of applications will need coding in standards like XML and J2EE.

Overcoming these hidden integration challenges does not get rid of all the problems. There are still the massive challenges of making legacy back-end systems (the number crunching mainframes and minis that run accounts and stock inventory) work with the Web-enabled front-end. This is where specialist integrators like Silver Bear Technologies and Aris are in huge demand.

Even when that is done (and it is a challenge beyond all but the most specialist of integrators), you are not out of the woods. "E-commerce is all about leveraging the extended enterprise," says Julian Alder, marketing director for Broadvision UK. "This means making it available to anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere, through any device."

By this, he means project managers should ask their supplier or in-house developers how they intend to cope with mobile communications access. Personal digital assistants, mobile phones and even traditional fixed phone lines are all means of channelling information in and out of your system. These capabilities need to be catered for.

The pros and cons of ASPs and hosted services are too varied and complex to go into here. In terms of time to market, the argument for using a host is unbeatable. As a long-term strategy, hosts and ASPs are still unproven.

At this stage in the technology's development, it is best to leave major technical decisions to the integrators. Later, when the market matures and there is a wealth of experience to fall back on, IT departments will be able to do these projects themselves. For now, all knowledge is in the hands of the early adopters, the integrators.

"Cherry picking the best technology in each area is all very well, but that does not mean they will work together," says Dominic Leslie, managing director at Aris. "If you are going to outsource anything, do not give key decisions to someone with a vested interest."

Getting the lowdown on e-business applications

Questions to ask yourself If you are looking for an e-business supplier:

  • Is the site to trade with other businesses or with the end consumer?

  • Are we looking to create a marketplace with other companies as well as supplying products on this system?

  • If this site is to trade with consumers, do we have a strong enough message to differentiate from competitors?

  • Do we have the complete management backing and sponsorship for this strategy?

  • Have we got (internally or externally) the creative ability to bring the idea to market?

    Questions to ask potential software suppliers:

  • Does it have appropriate reference sites in the same industry?

  • What technology platforms does the system support?

  • What is the on-going support model (especially if the product is one component of an overall solution)?

  • Who takes responsibility?

  • Who owns the solution? How does this change if bespoke code is written?

  • How will the system integrate with other software applications?

  • What is the process/cost of upgrading products?

  • Is the supplier financially stable?

  • How is the product costed (one-off charge, transaction based, etc)?

    Questions to ask a developer or systems integration house are a combination of the above plus:

  • What partners/strategic relationships does it have in place?

  • Does it use in-house resources or does it outsource development?

  • What training is provided?

  • How much support is offered, on what basis?

  • Is the system available in a "hosted" environment? If so, what are the costs and service level agreements?

  • How is development charged (time and materials, fixed price, combination of both)?

    Questions to ask your supplier:

  • Integrate every type of major hardware and software platforms

  • Knit together legacy applications and deliver results to one or more Web interfaces

  • Secure the system

  • Project manage while remaining diplomatic

  • Meet impossible deadlines

  • Talk business to businesses and technical to techies

  • Grasp business requirements

  • Guarantee the system will adapt to meet unpredictable future needs

  • Price the whole thing sensibly

  • Get it right first time

  • Read more on Business applications