An ASP.NET Shopping Cart and Hosting Service
By Mike Riley
Writing a shopping cart application is a rite of passage for many ASP.NET programmers, especially those who learned ASP.NET via introductory books and tutorials featuring the shopping cart as the example application. And yet, writing a good shopping cart is hard work, especially as the feature list continues to expand to include customer ratings, nested product categories, wish lists, e-mail alerts, shipping details, e-commerce transaction monitoring, reports ... the list goes on and on.
Reviewing the generic nature of shopping carts, it s a wonder why Microsoft opted to not include such controls in ASP.NET 2.0. Perhaps the new login controls, role management, master pages, and profiles in the 2.0 release kept the ASP.NET team too busy to tackle shopping cart management or maybe they decided that such a control is too quickly evolving to encase in a component that would remain part of the ASP.NET 2.0 legacy for years to come. In any case, the folks at IQ Services saw this omission as a perfect opportunity to not only create a sophisticated .NET-based shopping cart application, but also host it as well. Shopping cart data can be stored within either a Microsoft Access or SQL Server database, and the solution can be purchased as a single, stand-alone ASP.NET Web application, hosted by another ASP.NET provider, or hosted and managed by IQ Services. An SDK can also be purchased separately; this is available by request to licensed users and features a Visual Studio.NET C# project demonstrating how to use XSE.NET s shopping bag user control, as well as execute stored database queries (it also provides the source code to the Authorize.net gateway class used by XSE.NET).
Figure 1: After installing the software, the first task at hand is to set up the administrator account.
The version I reviewed for this article, 1.1.1501.9, was only 1.x aware and may require .NET 2.0 IIS users to execute the aspnet_regiis -i command within the \Windows\Microsoft.NET\Framework\v1.1.4322 folder to properly register the correct framework before installing and running the software. Once running, the array of options and administrative capabilities is impressive. The customer-facing store front delivers all the functionality expected of a sophisticated e-commerce shopping experience today, and both the storefront and admin backoffice pages are friendly with Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari browsers. Product searches, category menus, multiple product images/selections, cross sells, wish lists, email-a-friend , and shopping cart management with payment options are just some of the application s highlights.
The back-end administration feature list is nearly five times as long, with several managers supplying granular control to the store administrator for virtually every aspect of XSE.NET. These include the Property Manager (main settings, layouts, templates, messages, and custom properties), Product Manager (product listings, attributes, promotion, and specs), Category Manager (product categories/sub-categories and related icons/images/templates), Supplier Manager (manufacturer and publisher database), Author Manager (database consisting of author/artist/agent of the product), Promotion Manager (for date-driven price promotions), and other modules for Discounts, Availability, Payment, Shipping, Affiliates, Tax, Customer, and Sales Management. Visit http://www.ecommercesoft.net/features.php for the all details too numerous to list here.
Figure 2: The XSE.NET customer interface is well organized and feature-rich.
The hosted approach offers several tiered service options, including a $30/month leasing plan that is the most hands-off (code-wise) approach while allowing XSE to deploy and manage the software at another ASP.NET hosting partner of your choice. The next tier is leasing the software from XSE and allowing them to host it, as well. This ranges from $49/month to have XSE host the software and data in a Microsoft Access database, to $69/month for the data to reside in a SQL Server database. A premium version of this plan, with guaranteed uptime, premium technical support, and unlimited upgrades, ranges from $89/month for the Access version to $99/month for the SQL Server edition. Lastly, the software license and compiled bits can be purchased for tether-free software control. Note that regardless of which option is selected, it is still the responsibility of the store owner to configure the supported gateways: Aurhorize.Net, DPS payment express, FirePay, PayFlo Pro, and PayPal are XSE.NET s currently supported payment services.
In general, the installation and configuration of the software was a breeze, the administrative portion of the storefront was intuitive, and the features worked as expected. I did find that the default font for the store items was a little small for my tastes, but this was easily addressed by modifying the templates. Ultimately, the real question comes down to which software licensing or leasing variant to choose and if the application is worth the cost. I ve used several GNU-GPL open source e-commerce packages in the past, with my latest favorite being the PHP-based osCommerce available at http://www.oscommerce.com. While not ASP.NET-based, osCommerce does offer several of the key features that XSE.NET has to offer. Oddly enough, for a company that is marketing an ASP.NET approach to the electronic shopping cart market, IQ Services even runs its main Web site and Web marketing materials via PHP, sending a mixed message about which Web scripting technology they prefer to work with. In spite of this discrepancy, and the ongoing free-versus-fee concerns of open source versus proprietary software today, XSE.NET still offers a number of advantages compared to free shopping cart counterparts, whether they be ASP.NET or PHP-based.
Figure 3: The administrative interface provides a variety of functions to meet nearly every major need that a sophisticated e-commerce site should offer.
Although I am hesitant to advocate the hosted option for use by experienced developers and site administrators who manage their own Web applications and sites, companies without in-house expertise might opt for the hosted option to minimize headaches associated with version control and configuration management. I am partial to the full version purchase, but would prefer to have access to all the source code to customize if necessary rather than the limited SDK that IQ Services currently provides. Even so, the technical aspects of the product are attractive and I encourage any organization that has standardized on ASP.NET 1.x and is currently seeking an e-commerce solution to take a closer look at XSE.NET. A live demo of the product is available at http://www.ecommercesoft.net/live-demo.php.
Mike Riley is an advanced computing professional specializing in emerging technologies and new development trends. He also is a contributing editor for asp.netPRO. Readers may contact Mike at mailto:[email protected].
Web Site: http://www.ecommercesoft.net
Price: US$579; leasing plans start at $30/month.