For retailers and others willing to invest in the emerging technologies needed to support on-line sales, the profit potential of the Web is virtually unlimited. In its earliest phases, the Internet provided most companies with little more than a venue to display corporate information, press releases and marketing materials. Today's forward-looking companies now use the Web to bring in new customers, new sales and growing streams of e-business revenues. But to fully exploit the vast opportunities of e-commerce, we must first understand the underlying technologies that make Web-driven transactions possible. This column will take a closer look at these system architectures and the software used to manage an Internet-based transaction.

Planning and installing the systems needed to support e-commerce may seem daunting. But for companies with established internal network systems, much of the technology of an e-business infrastructure may already be in place.

In a typical Web-commerce configuration, we have an internal corporate network linking databases containing information on customers, product inventories, accounting, marketing and other topics. A firewall separates this internal network from a server box. This server connects to a Web server, which takes the enterprise to the Internet and opens the door to the growing universe of Web-based customer prospects.

There are two schools of thought on how best to leverage the enterprise network to create a secure and scalable e-commerce system.

One philosophy calls for locating all relevant computing logic at the Web server level. Under this approach, the Web-level logic controls all e-commerce activities, working through the firewall to control the use of network services, access to databases and transactional controls.

An alternative approach ­ one we believe is more open, scalable and interactive ­ deploys middleware and application business/logic objects to facilitate the management of Web-driven transactions.

This approach most typically employs Java applets at the browser level and Java servlets at the Web-server level to instantiate various objects or access services located on either side of the firewall.

When a customer or prospect clicks on a Web icon or product listing, the applets might instantiate objects to provide pricing, availability, other product offerings or an interactive "buy method" presentation. In this environment, the Web-level applications must work smoothly and simultaneously with multiple enterprise databases and objects, including inventory items, a customer record file, marketing offers or a specific transactional activity function.

This concept is quite similar to the middleware approach used by many enterprises to manage network-based on-line transaction processing. In fact, a core benefit of the architecture is that companies can leverage the same software strategies used to construct their internal, mission-critical applications and apply those same solutions to build external, Web-based e-commerce apps.

A good Web-sales system can be seen as a practical and economic extension of today's most successful on-line transaction technologies.

To be successful an e-commerce system must have the ability to manage numerous, and often intricate, activities of a Web-originated transaction as a single, atomic unit of work. Fortunately, companies launching e-business ventures can now deploy a new generation of advanced, Web-oriented transaction processing monitors to manage these intricate e-business activities.

This specialized middleware performs two crucial e-commerce functions. It establishes the framework, or the software plumbing, that allows us to launch an object from the consumer's Web browser to instantiate one or more databases or functional objects at the Web server or enterprise level. The transaction processing monitor also provides the software "glue" needed to manage atomic transactions across multiple objects.

The open, interactive approach delivered by Java and the Web offers both design and functional advantages. Since we build applets at the Web server that are fed automatically to our client software, distribution costs are dramatically reduced. All we need is a conventional browser with a built-in Java virtual machine, which current browsers now contain.

To lay the groundwork for even the most complex e-commerce transaction, programmers can now write a simple applet that might say "Cart->Close_Ticket." The middleware instantiates the appropriate objects across a secure connection, which may in turn instantiate other data, procedure or operational objects. The transaction processing (TP) monitor inside the middleware insures that all database work across all objects, services and machines is either all committed or all rolled back. These are highly complex processes, but fortunately the vast majority of the necessary logic comes ready to use in today's TP monitor software packages.

As you might expect, given the massive potential of Web-based commerce, a number of leading software companies now offer powerful TP monitor solutions. In our next two WebWorks columns, we will explore today's leading TP monitor solutions, including Microsoft's Transaction Server, Tuxedo, Encina, Orbix and M3.

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