With the rise in popularity of online commerce, more and more companies are looking for solutions to help them become online business-to-business and/or business-to-consumer powerhouses. However, for many organisations, the cost and complexity of online commerce solu-tions are barriers to entry. One alter-native to keeping down the cost of software is to look at open source solutions. While these solutions are often no less complex, money can be spent tailoring the system to meet the needs of the business, rather than just buying the software alone.
This month we review the OpenSales AllCommerce package, an open source Web-based e-commerce solution. The package, which we have included on this month's PC World CD-ROM, is made available free of charge under the GNU public licence.
What do you get?
AllCommerce is developed in the perl programming language and is designed to be tightly integrated into the Apache web server (www.apache.org), though it will work with other Web servers. It uses a standardised database interface mechanism which currently supports MySQL (www.mysql.com), mSQL (www.hughes.com.au) and PostgreSQL (www.postgresql.org), among others. This means that AllCommerce can fit in with your existing database system, minimising cost and time for its users (if the system is one of those mentioned).
Since it runs on Linux, site maintainers are also assured of the redundancy, reliability, functionality and security of the underlying system. Moreover, Linux allows for effectively limitless remote configurability: if the site goes down, or if changes need to be effected immediately, the site administrator does not need to be in the office; he or she only needs Internet access.
Moreover, since Linux offers strong firewalling and encryption capabilities, site administrators can take control of business and client security. All remote administration and site data can be encrypted and restricted only to those who should have access to it. This a feature of extreme importance to online shops and online shoppers in general.
What the customers see
This underlying power is translated into the client front end which includes dynamically generated pages, shopping cart facilities and individual user session management, site searching capabilities, a departmentalised structure to simplify user navigation and the ability to use strong SSL encryption by default. One downside is that, though it supports GST and can calculate tax on all goods, it lacks the ability to withhold GST where relevant, such as if a purchase were made by a customer outside of Australia. Development is currently underway to increase taxation capabilities to include issues such as these, but the current release leaving such a feature to be developed by users of AllCommerce is a disadvantage.
The default site layout is clean, but it can be changed and enhanced with included templates. There is also the capacity to generate your own templates and individualise your site even further - a process which is well documented within the package itself. You need to get your hands a little dirty if you want to go this far. The automation of all aspects of site setup, including these, is planned.
Wireless support is also featured, allowing users to browse the site with a WAP mobile phone or Personal Digital Assistant. Multi-language support and multi-currency complement this, allowing your site to become truly international.
Being open source, AllCommerce can be enhanced to function with existing online credit card and transaction verification systems, meaning that the money can change hands as soon as the customer finishes clicking. The addition of such a feature, however, would require a good deal of computing know-how.
Any reputable Web development company would be able to integrate this into the suite for minimal time and cost. This is the important element of the AllCommerce suite: it gives its users great power to customise it to their own business requirements.
AllCommerce can also be configured to run more than one shop at once. This means that business-to-consumer and business-to-business sites could be run from the same Web server, using the same database backend but providing the relevant content to each. As such, the expense of hardware and time is minimised while, at the same time, your entire client base is addressed.
What about administration?
A powerful Web-based tool allows administration of all aspects of the commerce solution. This includes listing of products and checking availability; monitoring order status and evaluating volume and value of sales over a given period; managing site layout and physical logistics; relating each product to a locality, be it on-site, warehouse(s) or any other definable location; and much more.
The "stats manager" can provide a detailed breakdown of user activity on the site. This information includes current orders and their value; the number of visitors; how many pages have been viewed; a statistical analysis of the most popular pages; and from where customers are being referred to the site. All this information is available in real-time, providing on-demand information about the flow and profitability of the online store.
Administrators also have direct access to the development community. This is supported by four mailing lists run by OpenSales.org that keep administrators up-to-date on new releases and developments, plus a forum for ideas and questions.
Too good to be true?
OpenSales' AllCommerce package offers extensive functionality at no cost. There are no hidden licences, no need for registration - and, because it is open source, if OpenSales is not around in the future you still have a product in totality. That is, you do not need to rely on them for future enhancements or ongoing support.
AllCommerce is currently in development, and at the moment it is not an out-of-the-box solution. To get it up and running necessitates a good understanding of Linux, perl and Web development. It also requires a knowledge of database technologies, and how to get a database running under Linux. As such, its not for your average computer user. And, of course, like many open source projects, enhancements to the system are regularly available.
Overall, OpenSales' AllCommerce suite is a functionally impressive software package which meets the demands of online commerce in a distinct, open-source model. The product has well-defined customer and administrator interfaces, works with a variety of open databases and runs on Linux and in conjunction with the popular Apache Web server.
Importantly, the product is written in perl, a well known and tested language, and users have access to the source. If you are looking at implementing an online commerce solutions, and are willing to consider an open source solution, this product is well worth closer inspection.