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Using Commerce Server to Manage Data Warehousing and Drive Analytics

Many companies are working to create applications that will generate insights through analytics, with Microsoft’s Commerce Server being the software vendor’s bid to enter this growing area of enterprise software. This article shows you how to use Commerce Server to manage data warehousing and drive analytics.
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Measuring just exactly what your Web site and broader e-commerce initiatives are delivering is critical, especially in challenging economic times. Commerce Server has the capability to report metrics of performance. Much of the metrics are driven from the extensive databases that Commerce Server can work in conjunction with.

Starting with Site Server and Progressing to Today

Beginning with Site Server 3.0, Microsoft started moving in the direction of providing guided selling and analytics through what would prove to an efficient serially based pipeline architecture. Although Site Server 3.0 was successful in specific applications that centered on the shopping cart technology and integration with Microsoft BackOffice products, it was clear the market was moving away from simplistic shopping models in Site Server, and the need for working with data warehouses was tantamount. Microsoft began to also see other vendors—including SPSS, SAS, Blue Martini, and E.phinany—make strong inroads into the Microsoft customer base. In response to these competitive pressures, Microsoft created data warehousing as the centerpiece of Commerce Server. Figure 1 shows the Commerce Server architecture with the role of Business Data Warehouse highlighted.

Figure 1 Commerce Server Data Warehouse.

Why the Commerce Server Data Warehouse?

Microsoft chose to use the Commerce Server Data Warehouse as the central storage point for all data, from click-stream to transaction-specific metrics. In most customer instances, Microsoft is populating the Data Warehouse through a set of processes that import and maintain data in a combination of a Microsoft SQL Server and OLAP databases. Microsoft is struggling to get the ODBC connections together for more robust support of Oracle databases. Admittedly, the Oracle 11i database has been a moving target, as users report over 5,000 patches to that specific version of Oracle's databases. Clearly, the implementation side of integrating with Oracle is still a work in progress.

The intent of the Data Warehouse is to import a large amount of site usage data collected from different data sources. This data is gathered from the Web server logs, the Commerce Server databases (profiles, catalogs, campaigns, and transactions), and other data sources that you specify. The Data Warehouse then manages the data in the SQL Server and OLAP databases. These databases are used to produce reports, and to analyze and view population segments. The Analysis modules in Commerce Server Business Desk are used to analyze the data in the Data Warehouse—for example, to identify user trends or to analyze the effectiveness of a campaign—and then update your site to target content to specific user groups or to sell specific products.

The Data Warehouse combines data from multiple sources into one common structure, giving the data consistency for producing reports, and analyzing and viewing population segments. This structure is called the Commerce Server Business Analytics System. Business analytics is a way of looking at your Web site data to answer specific questions about the performance of your Web site. You can use the information provided by business analytics to improve your customer service, target content to users, improve site performance, and so on.

Business analytics provides you with specific measurements of the performance of your Web site, such as the following:

  • What URL did the user visit before accessing your site (the referring URL)?
  • What type of advertising works?
  • What pages are the most popular on your Web site?
  • Which products sell the best?
  • Which users buy the most?

You can use these measurements to make changes to your Web site that will increase sales and retain users. For example, assume that you display an advertisement to promote a new product. After the ad is displayed for a week, you can run a report to determine whether the ad increased sales of the product. If it did not increase sales, you can update your site to display a 10 percent discount for the new product, for example. After a week, you can determine whether the discount improved sales.

Why Will Microsoft Reap the Benefits of Entering this Market Late?

Clearly, the area of data warehousing and analytics is now in its fourth generation. With Microsoft just entering the marketplace today, there is the obvious question: Is the vendor entering the market too late, given the complexity of products and depth of development partnerships already underway? Microsoft has definite ground to make up relative to competitors, and will need to navigate around the B2C areas that seem to trap many vendors in this space. If Microsoft can get into B2B, it will be that much more ahead of its competitors, yet that will be the toughest sell of all. Secondarily, the shift from marketing analytics to the integration of financial measures and marketing data doesn't seem to be in this release of Commerce Server. This omission will make it difficult for Microsoft to get traction in the largest of corporate accounts. When it comes to the data warehousing and analytics segments, Microsoft has an uphill claim ahead of itself.

How Microsoft Chose to Create Commerce Server Analytics

Using the Business Desk as the basis for driving queries related to business intelligence, Microsoft has developed a platform they hope will branch equally well between B2B and B2C needs. Microsoft has created the architecture shown in Figure 2 for its Commerce Server architecture:

Figure 2 Commerce Server analytics architecture.

The key components of Commerce Server analytics are as follows:

  • SQL Server hosts the relational database portion of the Commerce Server Data Warehouse. The Report table in this database contains the report definitions of the standard and user-defined reports.

  • Microsoft OLAP Server (Analysis Services 2000) hosts the OLAP portion of the Data Warehouse.

  • Microsoft Internet Explorer is a delivery tool that serves the Data Warehouse reports to the end user. Commerce Server Business Desk is the primary interface for the end user to perform reporting-related activities.

  • Dynamic reports are displayed in Internet Explorer through the Office Web Component (OWC) using the PivotList ActiveX control, which connects to the specific OLAP cube that contains the data for the reports.

  • Static reports are displayed in Internet Explorer by using HTML, by means of the Report Renderer component.

  • The contents of a report can be viewed in the graphical chart format by using the Chart button.

  • The export object can be used to export the data to List Manager or to Microsoft Excel by means of a single button on the displayed report.

What Commerce Server Needs to Get Right with Analytics

In a Microsoft-centric company, in which every component is from the same vendor, Commerce Server is excused from having to integrate into the third-party world that in fact dominates so many other companies. So let's just get away from the concept that everyone has a Microsoft-committed environment and that like .NET is supposed to be the great equalizer where operating systems are made agnostic. The reality is that .NET will be used as a market dynamic to drive the sales rates for every server component Microsoft has. So, with the expectation set that .NET is really the unifying connecting tissue between server and application components, it's easy to see what the shortcomings of CommerceServer are today. These include the following:

  • No track record in the B2B analytics marketplace, yet a strong presence in the mid-market with its operating systems and applications business.

  • No real connectivity into ERP and MRP systems to get the necessary financial metrics to deliver ROI and earnings per share impacts of marketing information.

  • Focus on B2C marketplace and the dotcom era through the Site Server positioning from before.

  • Need to get its Oracle connectivity act together and make sure that despite the evolving nature of 11i that Commerce Server will still be able to work with it.

  • Prove that the XML integration claimed in BizTalk Server really does bring EDI-based transactions to Commerce Server for completion.

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