ServersMicrosoft Site Server -- Advanced site-deployment software

Microsoft Site Server — Advanced site-deployment software

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At the highest end of public Web servers, there are really two goals in mind. To the end user, the high-end server must present a slick public face in the hopes of attracting a high level of site traffic and commerce. Within the enterprise, the high-end server must be the gatekeeper, coordinating efforts between a score of other servers that handle specific tasks. In this milieu, using the term “Web server” as a singular term is misleading, and success depends on how well the different parts integrate and how easy it is for a site development team to develop applications.

The Microsoft approach has been to throw everything but the kitchen sink in with the release of Microsoft Site Server 3.0. That’s not unusual for Microsoft; after all, Microsoft is famous for bundling a lot of tools under some umbrella term, but the noteworthy thing here is that the disparate parts of Site Server represent the same sorts of tools that you’d want if you were putting together piece-by-piece a high-end commerce site on your own.
The Microsoft approach has been to throw everything but the kitchen sink in with the release of Microsoft Site Server 3.0. Microsoft Site Server in its basic configuration is meant for intranets, while the focus in the Commerce Edition is public online transactions. As a result, most of our review will cover the Commerce Edition.

Site Server comes in two editions: the $1,239 Site Server 3.0 (formerly called Enterprise Edition), and the $4,609 Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition. Microsoft Site Server in its basic configuration is meant for intranets, while the focus in the Commerce Edition is public online transactions. As a result, most of our review will cover the Commerce Edition.

The level of integration between Site Server and other high-end Microsoft development tools, such as Visual InterDev and FrontPage, is rather impressive. Instead of going out and buying six different products to enable high-level Web commerce, Site Server offers all of the necessary tools under a single umbrella. Here’s where a little operating-system philosophy is in order. UNIX is really a collection of small tools, and the trick to using UNIX on any level is knowing what tools work with other tools and how to integrate them. This is one of the most frustrating things about UNIX for those coming from a Windows environment, even though for the most part UNIX tools are more powerful than their Windows counterparts.

Of course, the advantage of a Windows environment is that it provides a more graceful interface to its tools. With Site Server, this role falls to Microsoft Management Console, which controls most of the Site Server functionality (alas, you’ll need to use other Microsoft tools for usage analysis). And that’s why Site Server is such a quantum leap for webmasters — it provides a graceful interface to a set of integrated, advanced Web tools.

Site Server also represents a great leap forward in a Web-based approach to commerce, borrowing as much from the venerable Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) as from Web standards. Basically, you’ll need to set up a pipeline for enabling transactions. On the lower end, an Order Processing Pipeline (OPP) can be used for credit-card orders and for verifying payment. For larger-scale commercial efforts, you can use the Commerce Interchange Pipeline (CIP), which enables all binary-data transactions via XML and EDI. CIP represents the Component Object Model (COM) objects that use Distributed COM to exchange data via SMTP or HTTP servers.

We installed Site Server Commerce Edition and set up a test Web site to sell merchandise from the Northern League (an independent baseball league in the Upper Midwest and Canada), selling a wide range of baseball-related merchandise and (hypothetically) using EDI to maintain inventory from a variety of vendors, with the added twist of offering instant conversions from American dollars to Canadian dollars (and vice versa) using links to online banking sites. We also tested online-commerce abilities to offer real-time ticketing using (again, hypothetically) links to other transaction servers located at the eight stadiums in the league.

Within Microsoft Site Server 3.0 is a new Ad Server, which can be used to set up a sophisticated rotation of ad banners that differ based on time of day and the day of the week, coordinating ad banners to upcoming games and events. With it, we linked ads based on the page served; users who summoned a Duluth-Superior Dukes page received banners advertising Dukes merchandise and Duluth-area advertisers.

Also new in Site Server is Intelligent CrossSell, which takes information about a particular shopper, either from the current session or the shopper’s history, and then makes recommendations for additional purchases. An ominous “popularity filtering” capability allows server managers to substitute recommendations of popular items for recommendations of not-so-popular items.

In other words, “popularity filtering” is a way to clear out some unwanted inventory under the guise of matching a user’s preferences to existing inventory. (On our test server we used it to push Sioux Falls Canaries merchandise instead of the more popular St. Paul Saints merchandise.) In any case, Intelligent CrossSell is a useful tool, but if a commerce-oriented site were looking for a more advanced technology, they’d want to consider NetPerceptions’ GroupLens, which offers a more advanced collaborative-filtering and personalization environment.

Of course, there’s one big downside to going with Site Server: being tied into Microsoft. When you put together your own Web site using tools from a variety of vendors, you have the advantage of changing vendors without totally disrupting your Web site. Whether or not you want to rely so heavily on a single vendor is up to you.

Pros: All the commerce tools you’d ever need in a single package, Includes InterDev and FrontPage (available in the retail package but not in the evaluation release), Secure online transactions, Ad Server manages banner rotation and marketing, Intelligent CrossSell for advanced targeted sales

Cons: No UNIX version available, Optimized for Microsoft Internet Information Server, Ties you very closely to Microsoft products

Version Reviewed: 3.0 Service Pack 1

Reviewed by: Kevin Reichard
Last Updated: 2/14/01

Date of Original Review: 9/18/98

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