Today, the business community has realized the portal solution as an opportunity to develop and maintain integrated and personalized environments for e-commerce. Based on the natural behavior of an individual portal, portals have been categorized into business-to-consumer (B2C) portals, content management system (CMS) portals and business-to-business (B2B) portals in this article. While the role of individual portals is different from each other the ultimate objective, however, is to deliver e-commerce and manageable e-commerce solutions via portal technology.
Enterprise resources planning (ERP) is a cross-functional enterprise system that serves as a framework to integrate and automate business processes such as manufacturing, distribution, accounting, finance, logistics, and human resources. ERP provides significant efficiency and improvement in the company’s business process. Few ERPs integrated with communication modules support closer collaborative workspace for business professionals. The leading vendors for ERP software are SAP, Baan, J. D. Edwards, Oracle, and PeopleSoft. The most popular product is SAP R/3, developed by a German firm and its newer Web-based variant mySAP. com, which allows its users to work via the World Wide Web (Larsen, 2000; Perez, Hantush, & Matzke, 1999). SAP R/3 is a client/server system employing a common, integrated database with shared application modules; it handles both TCP/IP and SNA communication protocols (Lee & Martin, 2001; Lee & Whang, 2001). Many ERP vendors are moving existing desktop solutions to Web portal solutions due to the rapid advancements in Internet technology and telecommunications. However, there are still many problems needing to be solved. In particular, most ERP systems are “one-size-fits-all,” which results the lack of customization from the existing applications.
This article introduces an e-commerce portal that utilizes the generic multimedia ERP (GMM ERP) architecture. There are several significant differences between GMM ERP and traditional transaction systems. First, the traditional system is integrated through a common set of definitions and pre defined schema in database. Second, modules are tightly coupled and integrated in the system. The main advantage of the GMM ERP provides a complete customization that supports wide-range of business needs. In addition, the portal is loosely coupled and integrated with sophisticated communication modules. The major advantages of such e-commerce portal are the adaptability and extensibility of the data structure. By utilizing the approach of generic database, the e-commerce portal allows complete customization of the database schema. For instance, the current approach is to create a predefined data structure or schema before the database can be used for storage. In other words, the application is restricted to operate in a confined static or fixed data structure environment, and the user is not able to store other additional non-predefined attributes information. However, the generic multimedia ERP can be adapted to support significant changes in trading relationships and alteration of data structure. The e-commerce portal is user-friendly, efficient, and cost effective.
This article starts with the introduction of the three main portals: business-to-consumer portals, content management system portals and business-to-business portals. After that, the article is focused on the generic multimedia ERP architecture that achieves adaptability, extensibility, and reusability in the system. Next, it provides further information on the database connection layers that support the generic multimedia data model. Then, it introduces the integrated communication modules that support interactions and collaboration among users in the e-commerce environment. Finally, this article will discuss the role of a negotiation agent in e-commerce portals and conclude with several advantages of the e-com-merce portals.
The business community has envisioned portal solutions as an opportunity to develop and maintain integrated, personalized environments for e-commerce. Based on the natural behavior of individual portal, portals have been categorized into business-to-consumer portals, content management system portals and business-to-business portals in this article.
A business-to-consumer portal should consist of the following portlets:
• Products browsing
• Information pages browsing
• Shopping cart portlet
• Tell a friend
• News subscription
• Mailing list
• Negotiation agent
The attributes information of products is alterable with the unique generic data structure. The information pages are creat-able and editable via the WYSIWYG editor, which provides great benefits for users without skills of Web programming. These portlets are managed via the CMS portals.
Content Management System Portal
A Content Management System portal should include the following modules:
• Category management
• Product management
• Web contents / pages presentation management
• Customer management
• Subscription management
• Mailing list campaign
• Order / transaction management
This portal provides the user a full control over the content, description and cosmetic appearance of the online store. The attributes are fully customized with the generic data structure. The generic architecture will be explained in the section Generic Multimedia ERP Architecture.
The business-to-business portal is an additional portal and can be activated if a B2B relationship exists in the company. The B2B portal provides an advanced infrastructure and complicated functionality that supports a range of B2B activities such as:
• Wholesale customers management
• Supplier management
• Wholesale customer online login management
• Shipping / purchase order / order receive management
• Stock inventory / product faulty management
• Reserve/ invoicing system
• Payment transaction tracking
• Credit notes management
• Login account management
• Retails shop account management
• Customized reports such as profit and loss, outstanding delivery
• Calendar and communication module
These modules should be integrated in the B2B portal and designed with supply chain concept and workflow. In the next section, this article will explain the technique of generic multimedia ERP architecture that achieves adaptability, extensibility and reusability of data structure.
GENERIC MULTIMEDIA ERP ARCHITECTURE
In the application, there are two types of data input and output models in the product data management (PDM) and workflow management system (WfMS) (Kearney, 2002). These two models provide the best performance in information exchange and workflow coordination in the portal application.
The PDM is used to control access to documented versions of product designs, which include the traditional single data record, such as product details or company contact details. It plays an important role in the storage and access of data and documents throughout the process. Conversely, WfMS allows managers to coordinate and schedule the activities of business processes to optimize the flow of information between partners and resources. It is used to coordinate the more complex and repeatable work processes of production. Based on these two models, the application is developed with data input and data retrieval interfaces for accessing logistic information online.
The PDM is an ideal model to control product and contact information that involve two different types of database structure design: one entry of table storage and multiple entries of table storage. The “one entry of table storage” satisfies the table schema that has a one-to-one relation with other tables, and the purpose of this table is to store and access records. However, the multiple entries of table storage, when one table has been normalized by 3-N rules, results in splitting into a one-to-many relationship with another table. For instance, one invoice will have multiple purchase item details, which establish a one-to-many relationship within the entry.
The WfMS category is concerned with time-related tasks, which can handle any re-structuring, such as roles and responsibilities of parties in the supply chain logistic route. The system can automatically detect time conflicts in the existing route. When the administrator arranges for a workflow (Lang & Burnett, 2000), which may require member
A, the system will check for the availability of member A, and wait for guarantee from member A about the delivery in real time. If resource conflicts are identified the system will inform the user about the next best option.
In conclusion, the data models are classified into two categories, the product data management (PDM) and the workflow management system (WfMS). The PDM is a kind of simple data storage and retrieval model, which allows the user to access one single item quickly. A typical example is the customer record in a company system, which always stores the customer’s contact details. In the database structure design point of view, it only requires the user to access one single table in database. However, the WfMS allows control of the routing of work throughout the business process. It is done based on the user input describing the flow, the decisions, the exceptions, and the resource to be used. The co-ordination involves passing tasks to participants in correct sequence, and ensuring all complete their task successfully. In short, the WfMS may involve multiple tables connections.
The objective is to provide the flexibility of data medium and adaptability of the presentation interface. Today’s business system requires that the database structures be adaptable, extensible, and reusable, in order to enhance the value of the business. The three-layered generic database structure in the system design structure is the solution for this. The physical database layer is the lowest layer in the architecture, followed by the database structure layer and finally the database connection layer. The physical layer is responsible for handling traditional storage medium such as RDBM database and XML (Lang & Burnett, 2000) files.
The middle layer, database structure layer, contains objects that are responsible for managing the table schema in the database. All high level queries are passed and organized by the run-time objects in this layer. These queries are broken down into simple standard SQL access or storage operation and passed to the physical layer for execution. The upper layer, database connection layer maintains the connection between the system program and the database. This architecture allows the replacement of alternative storage medium in the physical layer with minimum effort. In addition, it allows flexibility and instant modification of the database scheme structure. This design breaks through the traditional static database schema and achieves the aim of flexibility in database structure. Figure 1 shows the three-layered design of the generic architecture.
COLLABORATION BETWEEN E-COMMERCE PORTALS
Communication and collaboration are one of the most important modules regardless the nature of applications. The great potential of internet technologies according to collaborative group work and consultation can still be explored for maximizing use of any applications. Thus the e-commerce portals are developed with additional modules that support communication and collaboration among users, and this additional feature achieves significant improvements in the entire application.
The entire synchronous interactive application that includes:
E-chat module with synchronized group Web browsing control
The e-chat module is written entirely with core Java and Java applet. The applet has to be compatible with Java 1.1.5 so as to work with Microsoft’s default Java VM plug-in for Internet Explorer. The objective of this design is to ensure that the applet can be run from the most common Web browser (i.e., Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator). The online chat system is designed to be easily extendible and configurable no matter what sort of system it is deployed on, with minimal dependencies. The server includes a multithreaded object class, which spawns threads when clients connect through the Java applet embedded in the dynamic html page. A maximum client limit is imposed to hinder denial of service attacks. This design enables the server to handle multiple clients without heavy demand on the system.
Figure 1. Three-layered design
The client’s Java applet is designed to run from any Web browsers. It is designed in a highly object-oriented behavior, with the separation between the design patterns in the backend functions and the front-end graphical user interface. In addition, the client and server communicate via TCP socket, which provides reliability and error correction in the network environment. Every session is saved in the database sys-tem. The users may, at a later stage, view the session information and the chat contents in each session. Users can review any previous online chat discussion at any time. In the chat module, the system also provides a file transfer function. This function allows active user in chat session to send file to other user in the same session. In most existing systems, users can only exchange files through email. Thus, any user without email is not able to communicate with other users. This shows that this toolkit has provided another alternative way for users to communicate in a much efficient way.
In order to further improve the communication between users in the online environments, the idea of having the electronic whiteboard is implemented in the portal. The whiteboard allows users to perform drawing on the Internet. They can share ideas, communicate in a graphic ways. They can enter text; draw lines, rectangles, scribbling, and ovals of any color. The whiteboard is designed to have the option of saving the drawing and opening previously saved drawings or other standard image files. Again, this greatly improves the communication and collaborative group work between the users. This component is similar to the e-chat module, it is implemented purely in Java, and thus users can operate from the standard Web browser on any platform.
Synchronized group Web browsing is the next feature communication tool in the toolkit. With the combination of chat and synchronized Web browsing, users can be notified automatically when anyone joins or leaves the session. The system is just like a virtual marketplace and the users in the same session can interact with each other. In addition, users can direct active users’ browsers to designated page by setting the URL address. Unlike other solutions, by utilizing Java technology this module can be directly integrated with the Webs without any additional effort.
The negotiation agent represents an important role in the e-commerce worlds because it can bring an enormous variety of benefits into the world of e-commerce when applied correctly. Researchers’ awareness of this issue has resulted in many systems that combined the two concepts, with an even greater range of projects being developed in order to further explore the potential of agent programming in e-commerce. Maes and Guttman (Eriksson, Finne, & Janson, 1996) discuss the different online retail systems with agent programming, how they were applied and what benefits were achieved through this by comparing a variety of commercial and research systems. The Bargain Finder was the agent created by the Anderson Consulting along with the Lifestyle Finder and Backseat Browser applications. This provided merchant comparison shopping functionality to consumers. For instance, potential clients were able to enter the description of a required item and the agent performed a search throughout the marketplace and found the item with the lowest vendor price. This seemed to succeed initially, but soon there was a realization that the price comparison did not satisfy the customers completely. Other transaction and delivery services were also considered. Anderson Consulting also provided other agent based services including the Lifestyle Finder where intelligent agents were trying to identify worldwide customers with their preferences and interests and the BackSeat Browser which helped with customer browsing by suggesting similar product sites.
The negotiation agent in the e-commerce portal is an intelligent software entity that will negotiate prices with customers. The company can obtain the best price, or at least a lowest acceptable price through these agent negotiations, for if a potential consumer, disarrayed by a current price, negotiates a better deal with the system, eventually closing a purchase transaction. This is a sale that normally would not have occurred if it were not for the Agents interaction.
The negotiation agent selling characteristic types are set to methodical and opportunistic, based on the research from GENA SystemAgent (Lim & Yu, 2001). The e-commerce portals implement a different agent, using GENA as a framework for development. The negotiation agent communicates with real clients instead of other agents. The e-commerce portals attempt to implement a system emulating real life shopping experiences as closely as possible. Therefore, purchasing and negotiation should reflect the same transaction at the local supermarket or auction house. Instead of depending on the agent to negotiate, clients become involved in the negotiation process themselves. The e-commerce portals attempts to implement the agent in a way that the client, at no stage, feels like they are talking to a system, instead, the feeling should be one of normal human interaction. In order to achieve this, the Agent besides returning the counter offer, also returns a meaningful message to the buyer.
One of the features of the negotiation agent is to give an extra discount on purchasing large quantities of a single product. Initially, the agent is designed to give extra reductions in price based on large purchased quantities of products. However, it is decided to restrict these negotiations to only a single item and the reduction will be applied during the transaction if large numbers of quantity are purchased. The reason behind this was because a client could use this as a security leak to gain advantages from the negotiation agent. For example, if a client tries to negotiate the price of a product with a large quantity selected. In the first design, the agent might give a high reduction on final price since large quantity has been purchased. However, the client can still change the quantity of each product in the shopping cart. Thus, if the user changes the quantity from one thousand (for example) to only one item, the previous reduction should not happen. In this case, the client could obtain a lower price and only purchase one item. As such, it placed the special reduction module on large purchased quantities at the final step of the shopping transaction. This is the final stage when the client decides to buy the selected products in the shopping cart. Figure 2 shows the data flow diagrams of the negotiation agent.
Figure 2. Dataflow diagrams of the negotiation agent
In a society that not only expects, but rather demands, high quality in all areas of information technology, the e-commerce domain is experiencing an extraordinary influx of new process and design innovations. Enabling the administrating organization to monitor, supply and serve the consumer in every imaginable scenario. From the moment a prospective client enters an e-commerce site, to the moment they exit, after purchasing or not, sites are becoming smarter by analyzing the movement and selections made by consumers to better serve the next client entering the store. Previously, however, these high-end, dynamic, and adaptive sites were only available to the large corporation willing to inject the required resources, such as time, money, and manpower, to develop such an application. The lack of a simple, yet extremely effective e-commerce application builder in the marketplace, for the SME and MNE alike, has led to the development of the e-commerce portals.
the e-commerce portals are introduced with its unique approach to integrate the B2C and B2B into one e-commerce portal and provide advanced CMS to configure and manage the portlets. By utilizing XML in the schema, it achieves the adaptability, extensibility, and reusability of database structure in the e-commerce system. In addition, the portals also provide communication channel between portal users. Furthermore, another maj or difference from other portal is the implementation of a negotiation agent. Last, the Web portal with the centralize system management, resulting in more efficient and less complicated data management.
Business to Business (B2B): The exchange of services, information and/or products from one business to another.
Business-to-Business Portal: This is an additional portal if a B2B relationship exists in the e-commerce portal. A B2B portal provides access for B2B customers to do online ordering, check order status, payment status, and product information. A B2B portal also provides functions for users to manage their relationship with suppliers, their purchase orders, tracking of shipment/orders, customer orders, customer payment, bank reconciliation, and inventory management, which support the entire supply-chain for a B2B model relationship.
Business to Consumer (B2C): The exchange of services, information and/or products from a business to a consumer.
Business-to-Consumer Portal: This portal provides a set of standard portlets in an e-commerce Web site. Portlets include Web site front section, product section, search engine section, contact page, shopping cart, recommendation section, and payment section. Users can customize these portlets and also create additional portlets via the CMS portals. This B2C portal also include a set of e-marketing sections such as tell-a friend portlet, news, or mailing list portlets, and bookmark us portlets.
Content Management System (CMS): Software that enables one to add and/or manipulate content on a Web site.
Content Management System (CMS) Portal: This portal is the authoring tools for customizing B2C, CMS and B2B portals. It allows the complete customization of data structure and layout presentation in B2C. By utilizing the XML, the portals allow the user to customize the product’s data schema. In addition, the user can modify or create additional static portlets via WYSIWYG editor. Each portlets are defined with its own title and meta fields to improve the search capability. This portal enables the administrator of the site to gain full control over the content, description, and cosmetic appearance of their online B2C store.
Electronic Commerce (E-Commerce): Electronic commerce can be between two businesses transmitting funds, goods, services and/or data or between a business and a customer.
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): A business management system that integrates all facets of the business, including planning, manufacturing, sales, and marketing.
Negotiation Agent: Agent receives a selling task and negotiates and interacts with clients.
Portals: A portal is defined as a single, integrated point of access to information, applications and people.