What is integrated eCommerce? In it’s most basic form, it is the integration between your eCommerce system and your back-office applications, namely ERP and CRM. The concept has been around for years, as businesses scrambled to automate their back office systems in an effort to increase the efficiency of their operations. Disconnected systems cost more time, money, and resources. But only within the last few years has this concept really become a reality for small businesses with a large portion of their operations stemming from online sales. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been a few players in this realm for years with limited success, one of which being Everest Software, but in this author’s perspective there hasn’t been any promising offers until recently.
For eCommerce merchants this means orders placed on the website come directly through to ERP, with customer information available for CRM functionality, and of course real-time inventory and product information coming directly from the warehouse, and accounting and sales information all running out of the same system. For years, eCommerce merchants have developed integrations between a number of systems (for example most shopping cart packages have an export/import feature for QuickBooks) in order to realize a taste the benefits of a connected system, but many of them fall short of full integration and are often consumed with maintenance issues and data redundancy.
Netsuite has actually been around for a number of years now, and has been a pioneer in integrated backoffice systems. Particularly focused towards small to medium sized businesses, Netsuite has received rave reviews both from a backoffice and corporate perspective. They compete in multiple software markets, in CRM with SalesForce.com and Microsoft CRM, as well as in the ERP and eCommerce space. They really have been on the forefront of the SaaS (Software as a Service) products which basically means that you don’t buy software in the traditional sense, it is offered to you as a service for a monthly fee. This usually means that the software is hosted in some datacenter, and you access it over the web. So one negative aspect of the platform is the lack of flexibility in deployment – it has to be hosted, and it has to be hosted by them. Netsuite’s entire set of functionality sits within their product, there is a somewhat large partner program for enhancements, web design, and the like, and they’ve seen tremendous growth over the years – both from online retailers and non-internet retailers.
Interprise Suite is a relative newcomer, introducing their product just in 2006. This product offers a similar functionality set as that of Netsuite, touting itself as an “all-in-one” eBusiness Application. However, there is a sharp distinction between Netsuite and Interprise Suite – namely, it’s flexibility. Interprise Suite is a smart client based application, I know, these client-server based models were popularized back in the 90s, in which SaaS has taken over since then, but Interprise Suite has seemed to have mastered this model. Let me explain why in one word – performance. First of all, you have an option of hosted this application, or managing it in house – big plus. Secondly, by leveraging a “thin client”, they’ve minimized the data transfer necessary for the application to run. Let me explain further, with typical SaaS applications, like Netsuite, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Salesforce.com, etc. you are essentially loading a web-based application through the internet. Which means that not only data must be transferred for a page to load, but also all of the images, scripts, and html to render each page. This typically means that those applications take at least a good second (or 2 or 3 in some cases) for each page to lead. However, with Interprise Suite, all of the application specific files are installed locally, and only the data is transmitted between server and client. Which means a more responsive load time. It’s also built on a WebServices platform, which makes it extensible and allows for custom developed modules by 3rd party partners. Another major difference between the applications is actually it’s handling of the eCommerce component. Namely, Interprise Suite leverages well established ASPdotNetStorefront in the shopping cart layer of this package. The settings and such are all maintained in the IS application, but the interface is controlled by ASPDNSF. So for developers and eCommerce integrators already familiar with that platform, it will be an easy transition to this system.
While integrated solutions do provide a lot of business value, one thing that’s important especially for businesses where eCommerce represents a significant portion of their business: Performance. And this is something that needs to be addressed on a number of fronts:
- Hosted Solutions: The SaaS industry has had plagued for years with service outages. If your business relies on eCommerce, you’ll want to get references as well as research the performance of any hosted system. Also, because there is much more overhead involved in hosting these systems than say, a traditional eCommerce website, you will be better off looking at dedicated hosting for your system to dedicate the resources available. And, furthermore, bandwidth is something to consider. The data centers hosting these applications should have incredible bandwidth to handle the volumes of data coming through both from visitors to the website, but also users of the backoffice systems – remember, everyone’s using the same data, from the same servers.
- Speed: Database indexing will be paramount for any of these systems. Because of the volume of data stored, a simple search for a product by a customer on your website may take much longer than in a database with only eCommerce data. I actually see this as one of the biggest drawbacks, the bigger the system, the more overhead you’re going to have, and when it comes to the experience your shoppers are going to receive on your website, that, in my opinion, is the most important factor in choosing any eCommerce system. If the performance is slow for your users, sales will suffer.
All in all, the concept of an integrated system is something that most organizations are working towards, with customized solutions to tie in back office applications, special SQL queries scheduled to run constantly to sync data between apps, and other hodge podge hacks as businesses look to reap the benefits of an integrated solution. These two solutions offer promising alternatives, and as they grow, look for them to be major players in that space. I personally would love to see a combination of systems, a separate but integrated approach where the databases are separate, but only necessary data is synced real-time on the backend.