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e-BUSINESS SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Author: Jessica Repa
Contributed by Webridge Incorporated. (2000)

 

 

The Internet is creating a new economy where business must be won on price and service at every interaction. To compete effectively on the Web, each business must determine for itself how it will be an “Internet company” - how it will leverage its unique practices, processes, and expertise to add new value through digital commerce. Successful eBusiness also requires a new kind of commerce system that adapts to changing business conditions between one transaction and the next. The available information must be reinvented at each encounter, uniquely suited to the needs of the customer and the business situation. Webridge understands the business and technological issues of eBusiness. Our eBusiness Express family of products and services are architected to offer fast-to-deploy, complete, customizable solutions for companies who want to quickly build a strategic advantage with digital commerce. In this paper, we outline the requirements for a truly dynamic eBusiness system that can be quickly deployed and then easily adapted to your changing business requirements.

Thanks to technology, today’s marketplace is increasingly crowded. New production methods and technologies are eroding product differences and shortening product lifecycles, which, in turn, shortens the competitive life of each product. In the past, companies have competed on price, while maintaining profits through process automation. But now most companies have realized the benefits of simple process automation, and the Internet and the ease of on-line comparison shopping are undermining customer loyalty and increasing market pressures even further for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business commerce.

The Internet and its attendant technologies are certainly resetting expectations of businesses and consumers throughout the world. But many a company will attempt to become an “Internet company ” only to end up as an “also ran.” What processes are the core of your value proposition, and how can you improve or enhance the experience of customers, employees, and partners by automating and integrating their activities through the Web? To compete effectively on the Web, each business must determine for itself how it will be an “Internet company ” — how it will leverage its unique practices, processes, and expertise to add new value through digital commerce.

eBusiness Is Not "Business As Usual"

In the Internet economy, the quality of the user experience is the key to successful competition. Like a physical store, products bring people in, but the environment, service, and overall satisfaction with the experience are what keep them coming back. On Amazon.com, for example, 60% of purchases are by repeat buyers. Why? Because of a simple, friendly purchasing interface and a system that tracks user interests and presents helpful suggestions and interesting information on each product.

The Internet affords the potential for true real-time interaction, for you to create a unique virtual environment for each user every time you are in contact. But achieving true eCommerce, doing business in a fundamentally different and more profitable way over the Web, takes more than slapping a Web site on top of client/server business systems with a few CGI interfaces or server pages. In the digital marketplace, change is the only constant. The available information must be reinvented at each encounter, uniquely suited to the needs of the customer and the business situation.

To achieve and sustain this kind of advantage, you need a new kind of commerce system that adapts to changing business conditions between one transaction and the next.

Webridge understands the business and technological issues of eBusiness. Our eBusiness Express packaged solutions for portals, end-to end commerce, and partner relationship management as well as our Express Framework are architected to offer fast-to-deploy, complete, customizable solutions for companies who are serious about digital commerce. In this paper, we present a number of these issues for your consideration.

Tools For New Times

Today’s forward-looking IT pundits talk about “enterprise computing ” as if a single, totally integrated information and communication system were just around the corner. But the reality of today’s enterprise is that most businesses have an assortment of different systems for different functions. They have multiple channels for communicating with different audiences: internal project teams keep in sync by email, while customer and partner communications may be driven by phone, fax or “snail mail”, and sales may still be mostly a paper-based, manual process. Often, different people involved in a process must work from incomplete or conflicting information.

Ultimately, eCommerce will provide new value by integrating information from all these processes to provide a unified view of the business for customers, partners, and internal participants. Information will be automatically and instantly combined and delivered in new ways to persuade, inform and improve overall quality of service. Processes will move faster and more accurately, and interactions with customers and partners will automatically generate information that will provide new insights for business strategies and decision-making.

Achieving Real - Time Flexibility

 In theory, digital things are easier to change than physical things. It is faster to edit a memo using a word processor than a typewriter (and you don’t get ink on your fingers). But when programming is required to change content or access policies, maintaining a complex Web site can range from onerous to impossible. Market factors change in real time, and so must the logic and content of an eBusiness site.

To achieve this vision, the next generation of eCommerce systems must provide a framework for automated information exchange between all the stakeholders in a business. These new frameworks are designed for flexibility so companies can change content and business logic in real-time to meet changing business needs and market conditions. This adaptability comes from a set of core services, common to all applications, which enable rapid deployment of new applications and new information and which work together to create a compelling, unified eCommerce environment. An eCommerce framework must include packaged, ready-to-deploy services for:

               

An Architecture For eBusiness

As eBusiness moves beyond simple transactions to encompass all the complex processes through which a company provides value, information systems must orchestrate the function of enterprise applications and information resources for total information flow. And they must empower business people with the tools to manage content publishing, delivery, and access, so that business results don’t depend on the IT department’s programming backlog.

Three - Tier Object - Centered Design

To achieve true, real-time eCommerce, next-generation eBusiness systems must be built around a 3-tier application paradigm with a clear abstraction and true separation of user interface presentation, business logic, and content. Separation and abstraction of these layers is achieved through the use of business objects, particularly in the middle layer.

When separating prensentation, application, and Data Logic three things must be considered:

  • User Interface - The user interface must support a variety of interface mechanisms, including Web browsers for users, business managers, designers and desktop applications for developers.

  • Business Logic - The middle tier must not only implement and execute business logic, it must also provide the framework of services that enable eBusiness, including security services, transaction services, and caching, pooling, and other load balancing services to improve overall system performance.

  • Content - The content layer includes corporate databases, document stores and other knowledge repositories.

                                       

This 3-tier architecture is inherently more scalable, more flexible, and more accurate than first-generation architectures, which simply bolt a Web browser interface onto existing client/server business applications. The separate presentation and business logic layers enable real-time communication. Execution of business logic can be divided between the client and the more powerful server platform to enhance performance. Business logic in the middle layer can be changed in one place to affect many applications, and data integrity is preserved because applications cannot access databases directly.

All Objects Are Not Created Equal

The overall architecture of an eBusiness system is important, but proper abstractions achieved through object technology are the foundation of a flexible eBusiness system. Correct separation of presentation, business logic, security functions, and content determines the flexibility of the system and the pace and effectiveness of eBusiness processes. To deliver truly dynamic, real-time communication, these relationships must be established on a per-transaction basis, as each page is assembled for delivery to a user eBusiness processes lend themselves to this kind of abstraction. Any Web Site can be realized as a composition of only three kinds of information elements:

             

Bringing Order To Content Management

As companies move more of their business processes onto the Web in search of greater sales or efficiency, Web sites are growing in size and complexity. Static Web sites often consist of hundreds or even thousands of Web pages, and tens of thousands of lines of code. Multi-media sites are becoming the standard, with everything from sophisticated graphics and animation to audio and video. Enterprise Web sites must integrate multiple applications from the back-office to the supply and sales chain, while maintaining security and the integrity of business information. As sites become larger and more complex, traditional Web publishing systems, with their hard-coded Web page content, become unmanageable. Content creators swamp programmers with requests for new Web pages, the approval process bogs down, and users no longer have access to current content.

Content management and publishing for eBusiness requires new processes and a centralized information architecture to help bring order to the rapidly expanding content base. As each new process is adapted for eBusiness, the content manage- ment and Web publishing system must support a new set of content creators, and it must repurpose and distribute new and existing information customized and personalized for different audiences. These powerful content management systems are built around:

               

Dynamic Web Environment

The graphical layouts used in next-generation eBusiness systems are more “intelligent” and manageable than the templates used in traditional Web publishing. While both control placement of graphic elements, style, etc., templates access content through business logic hard-coded into the body of the page. Pages with different content, however similar, require different source files. The number of source files for a traditional Web site explodes as more processes are integrated, and scalability is limited by the resources required to maintain the growing number of source pages.

Layouts, on the other hand, are a next-generation approach that do not embed business logic in the presentation objects. A layout controls only style and placement of elements on the page. The logic that determines content is separate from the layout, and can be changed and maintained independently. Content of a page is determined on a per-user, per-transaction basis at run time, so the layouts can be reused to create an infinite number of unique Web pages. With this dynamic assembly of Web pages, users get up-to-date content, and information access is controlled based on the user’s identity rather than the layout, so the each user sees only what he or she should see.

                                    

Content Management Tools

Content Management tools must enable content to grow and change at Web speed. A complete content management system allows business managers to publish documents and other information directly to the Web site, without programmer intervention, route documents for approval, and define the content lifecycle, so information on the Web site changes as needed, automatically.

Team Content Development

Publishing content to the Web and extending the functionality of a site takes a whole team: developers to build site structure and implement business rules, designers to create page layouts and define a consistent look and feel, and business managers to define business rules and contribute content. The development tools should provide version control and prevent developers from overwriting each other ’s work. The publishing tools should allow content contributors to publish through simple forms, without having to know the intricacies of site behavior. And team members must contribute within a centralized, shared environment, so that changes to any element are reflected the next time a Web page is assembled.

Collaboration Across The Extended Enterprise

Publishing and managing Web content typically involves an approval process and some administrative work. The content management system should support this by defining different user roles to grant explicit levels of access and authority. To speed content publishing, the system should automate work flow, routing documents for approval and then storing the approved documents for use on the Web site.

Centralized Rules - Based Content Management

Anyone should be able to manage site content simply by defining a few document characteristics when a document is published. With characteristics such as a document’s type (for example, “data sheet ”), format, and activation/expiration dates in place, links to the document can be automatically populated throughout the site, and document visibility and “document migration” can be automated. For example, after a given user has read the document or after 2 weeks, the document is automatically migrated off the “What ’s New Page” for that user, but remains visible in other areas of the site.

Customized Content Delivery

Different kinds of users have different contractual business relationships, and the eBusiness system must be able to manage these differing business relationships. In many cases, different groups need access to the same information, but at different levels. For example, high volume sales partners have different pricing than low volume sales partners, and customers should not see pricing at all.

In a well-designed eBusiness system, content is published, approved, and stored independently of the Web pages where it will appear. Business rules in the middle tier, specified and maintained by business managers, define which groups of users view which types of content. At delivery time, reusable Web layouts are combined with content based on the business rules, to give the user up-to-date and accurate content with a consistent look and feel. This scheme provides the best possible balance of timeliness and flexibility, because the content, business rules, and layouts can change independent of each other, right up to the time the page is assembled and delivered to the user.

                         

Pervasive Personalization

Most business Web sites today are little more than brochure ware. Users may be able to request specific information. Perhaps they can enter a password and gain access to personal information about their own accounts, and a few sites allow users to set preferences for their own Web environments. However, most businesses have not begun to conceive of Web sites that track user behavior and interests in real-time and anticipate the needs of each individual.

Personalization, the opportunity for targeted, one-on-one communication represents the greatest untapped potential of the Internet. With the right infrastructure, a business can provide a unique on-line experience to each user of its Web site. Through dynamically generated Web environments, an eBusiness system can automate and improve relationships with business partners and with individual users by:

  • Automatically reflecting business relationships and contractual agreements in the user environment (for example, incentive pricing or specialized support for one type of company and not another)

  • Presenting information relevant to each user based on user profiles that improve over time

  • Tracking the information viewed by a user and presenting related information or cross-sell and up-sell opportunities based on user behavior

  • Presenting information in the language, format, or medium that is most appropriate to each user

  • Providing user-driven personalization (similar to My Yahoo) or partner-driven personalization (similar to My Yahoo but applied as a “Corporate Yahoo ”)

  • Leveraging people-to-people matching technologies, such as NetPerceptions to predict user’s preferences and offer them additional choices interactively

  • Interactively adapting the user’s environment based on incoming user information

  • Allowing company branding and the user experience to work together on-line

Knowledge-Based Personalization

Effective personalization depends on the ability to customize a user’s experience based on a rich, centrally stored user profile: in essence, a knowledge base that consists of user information and expertise on how to apply that information. This kind of knowledge base cannot be bolted onto a brochure ware Web site. The ability to gather and apply user-related knowledge must be integrated into the eBusiness system from day one, so that information can be contributed, shared, and leveraged by all the applications in the system.

              

User profiles are the crown jewels of an eBusiness strategy. The quality of profiles determines the degree to which the user experience can be personalized. Profiles can and should be built through both explicit and implicit mechanisms. Initially, building a profile is much like doing lead generation. For example, when a user first visits the Web site, they may come to a generic home page. As a user requests specific information, the system can request information such as name and address, phone number, email address and some specific interests. Over time, the system can present surveys and questionnaires designed to extend and refine the user profile, and the system can automatically customize the user environment based on the new information. Business managers should be able to quickly and easily construct new survey forms to gather new user information as the need arises.

At the same time, the system can gather implicit user information by logging the user’s behavior: “clickstream” behavior (what links the user chose to follow) and transaction history (buying patterns). Business managers can aggregate and analyze this information to plan business strategies, and people-to-people matching technologies, such as NetPerceptions, can be integrated into the system to predict the users’ preferences and offer them other choices interactively.

Inclusive Security

Many of today’s Web sites are protected through manual security mechanisms which cannot scale to support a growing user base and the growing number of applications that participate in new eBusiness processes. Some sites control access on a per-application basis, which requires the user to remember a separate password for each application or the developers to build custom profiles for each user detailing the applications and directories to which that user has access. As usage grows, the rate of changes to applications and user profiles becomes unmanageable. eBusiness systems must allow growth with maintainable security mechanisms.

eBusiness processes and systems require a much more flexible and sophisticated security model than that of traditional information systems. In traditional systems, access to applications and datastores was limited by system and function (for example, only customer support had access to the trouble report database). In eBusi- ness, however, competitive advantage comes from exposing distributed information in real-time to every user who might benefit from it.

Successful eBusiness requires more sophisticated security mechanisms than simple application or directory-based access control. To give each user access to the widest possible range of information and support, the system requires per-function and per-datum control. This fine-grained control requires a new kind of security architecture built around three elements:

              

With simple tools and a central, shared repository, business managers can create, enhance, and change user profiles and group definitions to control information access and to target information to specific users. Business objects (both data and business logic) in the system are protected by access lists that control which users and groups may view that data or exercise that logic. Group definitions and access control lists can change independently, so the security scheme can be modified literally between one transaction and the next and the change is effective immediately through every application in the eBusiness system.

Scalability To Compete

As more and more processes are adapted to eBusiness, a Web site may grow to support thousands of users, millions of documents and millions of transactions each day. An eBusiness system must have the power to perform fast and reliably, as a business grows, while delivering the dynamic, personalized content necessary to achieve business goals.

There are many design features that can help to optimize performance of a dynamic eBusiness system. Sophisticated transactional caching capabilities allow applications to share data, query results, and sessions already in memory, lowering delays due to memory access or context switching. Reusable stored procedures reduce the overall code base, take advantage of caching, and improve run-time performance. And pooled access to back-end databases improves data retrieval times. Application design and platform choices further affect performance and, hence, scalability.

So, what about the scalability of real eBusiness sites? Cisco Systems has one of the largest and most successful eBusiness sites in use today, generating over 70% of the company’s $14B annual revenue electronically. The Cisco site provides a realistic high-end usage standard for an eBusiness Web site. Some recent numbers from the Cisco Web site show what a real eBusiness load looks like:

  • # of registered companies = 1,274

  • # of registered users = 49,530

  • # of inquiries per month = 441,018

  • # of orders per month = 289,502

  • # of order status requests per month = 254,973

  • Average Web site-attributed revenue per day = $21,400,000 (= $7.7B per year)

From these figures, Cisco handles just under a million total transactions per month, delivering perhaps 10 million Web pages per month — around 4 Web pages per second. Can a dynamic eBusiness site deliver this kind of performance? Empirical evidence says that it can, and more.

For example, we can consider the Webridge foundation site, a highly dynamic, personalized eBusiness site built with and integrated into Webridge’s Express Framework. This site renders Web pages dynamically and transactionally with consistent queries against the database and considerable customization of the user’s view using scripts and controls. In a simulation of customers logging into the site, viewing highly customized and personalized Web sites, and reading secure documents, the site is capable of serving 1.7M pages/day,53M pages/mo or 5X the current usage rate of the Cisco site. The test platform was only a single 4X 450 Mhz Pentium II Xeon system, whereas large sites could dedicate tens of servers if needed to meet any conceivable load.

Enterprise Integration and Transaction Monitors

Any business process can be “Web-ified” with a CGI interface or a few server pages. But isolated, eBusiness is about providing new value by doing business in a fundamentally new way. Integration is the goal and the heart of eBusiness: integrating and exposing applications and content in a personalized way to speed, scale and improve business processes and to engage, involve, and build lasting relationships with customers and business partners.

To achieve fast integration with high performance and accuracy, an eBusiness system must be architected for integration:

  • When shared logic is implemented as middle-tier business rules, new applications can be added and instantly take advantage of the knowledge embodied in the system.

  • Transaction services enable sharing of business rules and content in a real time and ensure that all applications have accurate, current data.

  • Reliable communication helps maintain data consistency between shared applications.

As Web-based business becomes mainstream, users in a distributed environment will expect the same level of data integrity as provided by monolithic mainframe systems. Transaction management cannot be handled by individual applications. It must be inherent in the eBusiness framework to preserve data integrity across a myriad of simultaneous users, shared applications, and shared data stores.

Transaction management guarantees that users have a consistent view of business information. For example, the eBusiness system should prevent the customer from completing an order based on one price, then being charged based on the new price. Transaction management also prevents inaccurate results based on system failures (e.g., the system goes down and loses an order but continues to process the billing using already-transmitted credit card information). Robust system logs can help coordinate updates across multiple data sources from multiple vendors or roll back changes in case of system failure.

Reliable communication between shared applications can be ensured with message queuing services. In a distributed, dynamic system, applications are not directly connected (that is, software in one application does not directly call or control code in another). Yet, applications must communicate in a reliable way. For example, a product configuration application must pass a correct configuration to a order processing application. If the product configurator tried to pass the configuration directly to the order processor, any system failure might cause the configuration to be lost. But if the configurator stores the correct configuration, then sends a message for the order processor to a queue, both the queue and the configuration will survive any application, system, or network failure. The message queue can guarantee that a message will be delivered (once and only once) when a transaction commits.

Delegated System Management

eBusiness systems are distributed by their very nature, coordinating information sharing among applications, business functions and departments, and partners up and down the supply chain. Bringing business processes to the Web increases the complexity of the eBusiness site, and growing and changing numbers of users and applications increase the complexity of managing a site. No centralized IT department could effectively maintain current accounts or access privileges for all users, inside and outside the company. Most Web sites today are not sophisticated enough to reach this roadblock, but as businesses open and extend their processes via the Web, system manageability will become an increasingly serious issue.

To avoid system management bottlenecks, management of user profiles and privileges must be shared to business managers and business partners through a roles-based multi-level administration mechanism. In such a scheme, a “super- administrator” de . nes the privileges of sub-administrators, defines roles by associating groups with different sets of privileges, then assigns people to the different groups. Thus, portions of the administration duties can be securely delegated, even to people outside the company. For example, maintenance of reseller salesperson accounts might be delegated to a regional manager at a partner company. That person could set up new user accounts for his company’s salespeople, add new users to certain groups, or remove users as needed. Each new user would gain instant access to appropriate information and applications, and other information would be protected from unauthorized access.

Time to Market

The Internet has been dubbed the great equalizer for businesses. The theory is that any company can afford a Web site, and thus reach as many people as larger or more established businesses with many stores or a huge sales force. This theory holds only as long as the public and other businesses are satisfied with static Web sites. The reality is that dynamic, interactive, personalized sites that add real value have been expensive and time-consuming to develop. In its report of June, 1999, the Gartner Group found that the average eCommerce Web site takes 5 months to 1 year to deploy and costs around $1 million (80% of which is developer labor).

ECommerce pioneers Cisco Systems and Dell Computer typify the experience of companies designing their own Web sites as add-ons to enterprise systems. Cisco introduced its proprietary reseller Web site in 1996, after 3 years and over $50 million in development costs, and now claims to generate half its business electronically. Dell Computers’ Web site contributes $10 million/day in sales. However, both companies have found that their proprietary sites have serious architectural drawbacks. For Cisco, its site based on flat files and CGI interfaces, written in Perl and C, has proved difficult and costly to maintain. The Perl-built system has been through four iterations, and Cisco has now hired an integrator and is moving to convert its Extranet architecture to components and Java. Dell found that its “hard-wired ” site is difficult to change to keep up with business and customer requirements.

Up to now, companies moving to eBusiness have faced a dilemma: face the cost and long lead times to develop an eCommerce Web site now, with less than ideal technology, or suffer lost opportunity costs as more eager or well-heeled competitors beat you to the Web. Technology and cost limitations have proven to be a barrier to businesses intent on eBusiness, but with next-generation systems, those barriers are falling. With next-generation technology, eBusiness systems are fast to develop, easy to maintain, and offer superior content management, personalization, and rich, secure information access. Packaged eBusiness sites with the right object design, integrated service architecture, and publishing and Web-based system management tools for business managers provide a fast route to eCommerce.

The End of the eBusiness Dilemma

If you believe the technology soothsayers, every company is destined to be an Internet company. So, the question remains: “What kind of Internet company are you going to be?”  The answer is up to you, because only you know the core value of your business, and only you have the knowledge to cope with the constant change in your marketplace.

The good news is that there is no more dilemma of how to stake a fast claim in the Internet economy without ravaging current resources to get there. With the right eBusiness system and your own content, applications, and business knowledge, you can create a compelling Web environment for every stakeholder in your business. Your company can use the Web to compete like never before, to reinvent itself monthly or hourly.


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