People are accustomed to buying goods online. If a company sells products to individuals, we call it B2C for Business To Consumers. If a business sells to other businesses – it’s B2B. Having an online store allows to sell around the clock regardless of the consumer’s location (at least within the country) as long as he or she is connected to the Internet. People spend some substantial time online and sellers are trying to reach their clients via all possible channels and devices being that a regular HTML Web page, a social network, a mobile application on any device with embedded browser. Still, some people aren’t Internet savvy and business will continue using more traditional channels like printed mail order catalogs. This is what the multi-channel marketing is about. Ideally, a business should be able to combine marketing the products with selling them right there. If you’ve seen the product commercial on Facebook or your mobile phone the storefront should be there too.
Ingredients of an online store
If I’d ask you to give me an example of an e-commerce site, most likely you’d answer Amazon or eBay. Agree. But what’s needed for building an e-commerce system? Let’s come up with a list of building blocks and solutions that Joe Smith, a CIO of the Best Stuff, Inc. would need to create an e-commerce portal:
– A shopping cart
– A catalog
– Integration with several payment systems
– Order management system
– Full text search
– High-load solutions
– Selling through social networks
– Ability to create UI supporting variety of desktop and handheld devices
– Integration with warehousing software
– Data feeds from external systems
– Consumers reviews, locator services, Web analytics
– Live video chats with customer supports
This list is not complete. Starting developing such a complex system from scratch would be insane unless you have unlimited budget and no deadlines to meet. On the other hand, trying to find a Swiss army knife solution usually translates into purchasing super expensive software with 80% of the functionality that you’ll never use. The truth is somewhere in the middle, especially in the age of Software-As-A-Service (SaaS) where you can subscribe to only what you need.
Our company, Farata Systems has an e-commerce team that works with the Hybris software suite. For detailed comparison reviews of the e-commerce solutions refer to Gartner or Forrester. I can just offer you a Hybris review based on our real-world experience.
When we were offered to work on our first Hybris project we had to google this name up. Still, we were hired because of our solid expertise in enterprise development using Java and Spring framework, which are pre-requisites for developing software with Hybris Multi-Channel Suite.
Hybris is a well designed modularized software built on top of Apache and SpringSource components, containers and servers. We’ve been given login credentials to be able to access product Wiki and rolled up our sleeves. The software comes with an installer that includes modified Apache Tomcat servlet container, Spring modules and a home-made ORM framework for data persistence.
Finding goods in your online store has to be easier than in a brick and mortar one. Say you want to buy an engagement ring, but not sure if it has to be made of a white gold with diamonds or something more modest. Writing strict SQL queries is not overly flexible, but the full text search (FTS) technique allows examine all words in each document in your database rather then specifying the column names in the database table. The FTS feature give lots of flexibility in creating stores which allow to quickly find the products that closely match your customer’s needs (e.g. diamonds of certain shape, size, price range etc.) Hybris ships with the FTS module based on the fast search engine Apache SOLR (a Lucene extension). The system periodically (say, every minute) runs the data indexing process. You write queries not in SQL, but in a special query language.
This tightly integrated software allows you to create and release in production a simple online store in less than a month. But a typical store or an auction requires implementation of lots of custom solutions. For example, let’s take order fulfillment. Hybris offers off the box the basic solutions supporting order management and consignment. But in our projects we had to implement fulfillment algorithm that would take into account the distance between the warehouse and the consumer and minimize the number of shipments. For example, the customer wants to purchase twenty large screen TVs. The system has found six TV’s in one of your stores and four in the other. Since we need another ten TV’s our custom algorithm sends a request to a warehouse to order these additional TV sets. As a result – the customer will get a shipment of all twenty items shipped in a least expensive way.
Such customized business logic is implemented in Java as beans of Spring framework, which is literally a fabric of the entire Hybris software. Your code always has access to Spring context object. By adding custom extensions you create the child context object with your Spring bean containing custom logic to place a distributed order of 20 TVs.
From the software architect perspective, the ease of extending existing Hybris entities is very appealing. For example, if you need to add customer reviews features, just add a couple of fields to the Product entity, create a new entity for ProductReview and link them together. Then add a row of those yellow stars to the storefront UI and you’re set.
Yet another interesting Hybris module is called Cockpit, which becomes quite handy in environments where the information changes quickly and the customers need to see the latest product information. We even customized Cockpit for building our own administration tool for the online auction project.
The launch of your Hybris server can be configured to load only those modules that are needed for your store. Our fully loaded server starts within 2 minutes, which is not bad at all. The initial install of the Hybris server comes with the in-memory HSQLDB, which is fast, but not suitable for the real-world applications. We started with MySql Server and then switched to Oracle with very minimal manual tuning.
Integration with the payment gateway is probably the most critical component of any online store or auction. Hybris has its own payment module, but we’ve been asked to integration with another payment processing engine – Litle.com using XML as the data exchange format. Little accepts all kinds of credit cards, PayPal, eCheck, mobile payments, and bill-me-later option. Introducing another provider in your payment workflow can make a lot of business sense, but be prepare to find yourself in the middle of the finger pointing game until you finish the payment integration. Add some more cushion there if you are making project estimates.
Hybris comes with a clustering solution from the box. Each node of your cluster can be configured to include only those Hybris extensions that it needs. For example, you can configure a cluster with one more for the administration module, three nodes for the store UI, and one node for the data indexing.
In March of 2012 Adobe has announced its partnership with Hybris. Adobe’s CQ5 will help in creating multi-channel digital marketing campaigns and building strong brands for online stores created by Hybris.
Room for improvements
Although our overall impression after using Hybris on a couple of projects is very positive, this software has room for improvements. I’m sure, Hybris management has their reasons for keeping its community closed, but it may hurt the adoption of the software. The product documentation is not too detailed and up to date. Hybris technical experts have to pay more attention to the developer’s forum. In many cases we’ve been using the source code de-compilers to find the answers to our questions. Since Hybris is built on top of Java EE, I’d like the future versions to include a JPA-based solution that would allow using the data persistence solution of our choice rather than a proprietary ORM.
While finding solutions in developing software with Hybris was difficult at time, we never hit the wall, which can be credited to the engineering team. Overall, it’s a solid platform for creating modern online stores and auctions.
When we started our first e-commerce projects with Hybris, we couldn’t find any publicly available online materials about this software written by people in the trenches. I really hope that this article will help anyone who’s still in the process of selecting the right e-commerce software package for their next generation online store.