IBM rounds out WebSphere platform

Taking aim at enterprises looking to streamline B2B and B2C order processing, IBM Canada Ltd. has released new versions of its WebSphere Commerce suite.

WebSphere Commerce Professional Edition – which is for business-to-consumer sites and WebSphere Commerce Business Edition – for business-to-business sites, both feature tighter hooks to inventory and order information contained in back-end enterprise resource planning applications.

“Tying the order management features into real-time inventory capabilities lets customers see whether an item is in stock before they order, but it also lets the vendors do ‘availability of promise,’ which lets them sell items not yet in inventory but that they expect to be shortly,” said Brian Adler, IBM’s B2B segment manager for WebSphere Commerce in Cambridge, Mass.

Another new capability is in the area of contract-based commerce, which gives buyers and their partners a customized view into a B2B site through a personalized user interface. According to Adler, the interface can be changed on a customer-by-customer or contract-by-contract basis to control the pricing a buyer sees, and the payment terms of their particular contract with the vendor.

Office supplier Staples Inc. will use WebSphere Commerce as the new platform for its B2B site,, which will offer medium- to large-size customers real-time inventory and real-time pricing, said Framingham, Mass.-based spokesperson Owen Davis.

The company is in the process of upgrading to the new WebSphere Commerce suite from an older version of IBM Net.Commerce, which Staples deployed in October 1999.

WebSphere Commerce has collaborative workspaces for B2B e-commerce, designed to let parties exchange information more quickly by creating a “virtual teaming environment” where documents can be shared and edited, Adler said. He also said that many customers are using the platform to standardize their organization’s online presence, often replacing multiple homegrown e-commerce solutions.

Robert Fabian, a Toronto-based independent e-commerce consultant, said that high-end tools like WebSphere make sense as a way to bring order and consistency to the involved, data-intensive, performance-intensive Web sites of major companies.

“The general buzz is that WebSphere is a competitive, must-consider product if you are doing larger, more complex, more multifaceted B2B or B2C applications,” he said.

Fabian also noted that every company that’s serious about being in the software business is pushing to develop a similar high-end Web product.

“A key part of the .Net initiative is to put the tools in place that would allow Microsoft’s customers to build and manage Web sites. Oracle is also pushing hard to ‘Webify,’ and SAP is now finally committed to providing a real Web front end, plus there are a few stand-alone ones like SilverStream (Software Inc.),” he said.

On the skills side, Fabian, who has been a CS instructor at several Canadian universities, said that developers using tools like WebSphere, or guiding people who are using it, have to take a long enough view to understand the implications of the programming choices they make.

“There are a gazillion decisions about how to script, architect or structure the interaction between the user and the Web site, and the design of that has a lot to do with conventional programming skills,” he said.

“You have to ask yourself: ‘If I make this choice about access to live data what’s that going to do to the performance of the site, or if I make this choice about replicating my site to make sure it stays up, what’s that going to do to my need for bandwidth?’ This is one of those complex, multifaceted water balloons – you push in one area and it comes out in another – and it could be quite embarrassing if it comes out in the wrong area,” he said.

WebSphere Commerce is built on IBM software products, including WebSphere Application Server and DB2 Universal Database. WebSphere Commerce Professional Edition 5.4 starts at US$80,000 per processor. WebSphere Commerce Business Edition 5.4, which adds account and contract management features, as well as more advanced security controls, starts at $125,000 per processor. Both are available now.