Having recently been employed by a tool hire and sales company to develop their web presence and build an e-commerce website, I set about finding a solution for them. I had previously worked for Buzinet Solutions, and Nexbyte (founded by an ex-director of Buzinet) so I had some experience of bespoke e-commerce software written in .asp and asp.net as well as OSCommerce, the original open source PHP based e-commerce software. However, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel by building a bespoke e-commerce system, as my skill level would make this very challenging, and if I was able to build something, it would likely take me a year, and then would be full of bugs and security vulnerabilities, plus would have a fraction of the features available with existing systems.
My spec was that I needed a system that allowed the usual features expected from e-commerce; unlimited products, categories, payment gateway integration etc, plus some other features that might make life easier when dealing with 1000s of products, such as importing and exporting of products en masse from a spreadsheet or .csv file.
There was an existing site built with Actinic Catalog. I had a play around with it, it met most of the requirements however, it had a couple of very negative aspects. Firstly, it is an alien system to me. It is unlike any of the usual systems, and it was taking me a while to understand how to do anything more than the basics. Secondly, it has a licence for one PC. Everything is built locally and then uploaded. Not necessarily a problem, but I don’t like being tied to a particular PC. Thirdly, it isn’t free. Although the licence is paid for, future patching and updating would require more spending, unless I were to keep it unpatched (not a wise option)
Finally, I found that it isn’t very widely supported by hosting companies. I wanted to use a hosting company that offered reseller hosting on mutiple domains with both .php and asp.net options. This last one is what swung it for me.
So I did some searching for a free open source asp.net e-commerce system as it is what I am most familiar with. I could understand most of the code and add or edit stuff if I needed it. The one I found that was alive and kicking and had the best reviews was nopCommerce. So I downloaded and installed it on my Redfox hosting account. All seemed well until I tried uploading product images. I kept getting permission errors. It turned out that nopCommerce requires “full trust” mode for asp.net. The documentation said some features were unavailable, however uploading images is a pretty central feature to an e-commerce site! As RedFox don’t offer “full trust” mode, I had to try something else.
php based E-commerce platforms
From reading various forums, the prevailing view was that the classic OsCommerce is a bit dated as a system. I also had experience of a serious vulnerability in OsCommerce in one site at one of the companies I was working for, that had police involvement. To be fair, it was a known vulnerability that should have been patched, but it still put me off. The three other php based E-commerce system I investigated were Magento, CubeCart and Zen cart.
A lot of people were raving about Magento. It seems to be a powerful system with a lot of features. However, it is apparently very complex and hard to deploy out of the box. The free version also misses a host of features and comes with this quote from the Magento website:
“For expert developers and technical enthusiasts in non-mission critical environments. Intended for those with the time and resources needed to solve issues independently.”
A few people also claimed that Zen Cart was a bit dated so I took a look at Cube Cart.
Like Magento, this comes with free (v3) and premium (v4) versions. The free version misses some of the features of the premium one, perhaps most importantly SEO. I installed it and started testing. One thing it has little support for it importing products en masse. There were some vague discussions about importing via sql, but nothing I could find in the way of an faq on how to do this. Several table would need to be modified and I’m sure it’s doable, but sounded like a headache. I also couldn’t see an option to display products by manufacturer in the free version. So, lastly I took a look at Zen Cart
Well the site is live now in Zen Cart. www.tooltraderdirect.co.uk In spite of being called dated, I found this meant it had a lot of mods and design templates built for it, it has been thoroughly tested, and the website and forums are rich in helpful faqs and “how-tos.” I had a site up and running quite quickly, and got some products on. It allows for product importing, manufacturers, and listing of products in multiple categories. It also runs fine on Microsoft IIS7.
I then tried installing a url rewriter mod “Simple SEO” – I have to admit, this foxed me for a while, and I thought it was due to the fact that it uses the Apache mod-rewrite component. As my server is IIS not Apache I thought it wouldn’t work, but it did, due to an nice ISAPI-rewrite component that alows you to use .htaccess files! I also installed a “froogle” (now Google Products) add-on that submits a feed to Google shopping search engine. Nice! It also has a component that integrates nicely with Google Analytics.
So all in all, I am happy with Zen Cart. Just need to get the design sorted as the design template I chose needs some work. Watch this space.
E-commerce reference reading
This is an article I found useful on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Open_Source_eCommerce_Software