Chapter 14: ecommerceby Philip Greenspun, part of Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing
First, because so few people are doing it right. A friend of mine said that he wouldn't buy an airplane ticket from the United Airlines Web site. He wasn't paranoid about his credit card number being compromised. Drawing an inference from their sluggish and badly programmed Web service, he didn't believe that his reservation would be made or a ticket issued.
Second, because people are spending obscene amounts of money to do trivial things. Sometimes the money is spent on buying packaged junkware and then on figuring out how to debug/integrate it. Sometimes the money is spent on madly writing, compiling, and debugging Java programs that replicate capabilities already present in sets of Perl or Tcl scripts three years ago.
Finally, because even a bland ecommerce site may occasionally blossom into an interesting site with community or Web service angles.
Ultimately I did reach customer relations where they also refused to honor the fare, mumbling something about how the Web was just an experimental thing anyway. In one transaction, United had managed to simultaneously demonstrate incompetence and unwillingness to take responsibility for its incompetence.
Can you learn from United's mistakes? Yes. Before you set up an
ecommerce site, decide (1) whether you are serious about building a
working service, and (2) whether you are going to take responsibility for
your programming and administration mistakes.
Thus at the end of the day, you're going to have a custom-developed Web application talking to a standard accounting system of some sort. If the accounting system is powerful and running out of the same RDBMS installation as the Web site, then you might well not need to confront any of the allegedly tough ecommerce technology decisions.
An obvious first cut at the problem involves three database installations:
Suppose, however, that the Web server needs a lot of data from the factory tables before it can offer delivery information. It is possible to keep copies of the necessary factory tables in the Web server's RDBMS. Every time an update or insert is made on the factory RDBMS, the transaction is duplicated on the Web server RDBMS. This is called database replication and companies like Oracle produce software to facilitate replication. However, you have to budget extra time and money to develop and maintain a replication strategy. So you might consider eliminating the RDBMS next to the Web server and configuring the Web server program to make an encrypted connection to the factory RDBMS.
Suppose that you are quickly turning out custom goods. You can't wait for batches of orders to be sent to the factory because products are supposed to be built and shipped on the same day as orders placed before 2:00 pm. This means that the factory RDBMS must have rapid access to the relevant tables from the Web server RDBMS. Again, you have the option of replication or eliminating the factory database installation and having the factory client programs talk directly to the Web server RDBMS.
Suppose that you want to offer customers the option to "bill the same credit card as on your last order, ending in 4561." In that case you either need to keep the old credit card numbers yourself or have some means of communication between your database and your transaction vendor (bank).
Suppose that your accounting system can run the credit card numbers. In that case, you will probably want to eliminate the RDBMS at the bank and tightly couple the Web site to whatever RDBMS installation is running the accounting system.
There are no correct answers to the questions of "how many RDBMS
installations and where are they" but you need to address them
Step 4: Lifetime Customer Value Management
Companies that are selling direct for the first time will immediately
realize that they now have access to their dream data. They can figure
out, down to the individual consumer, who is buying what and how often.
About two days after the business folks realize this, they will turn to
the nerds and say "Build us a lifetime customer value management
The "lifetime" in the above phrase reflects the fact that you have to engineer the system to track particular customers' activities over many years. As soon as Joe Smith shows up on the site, you need to know how many times this person has placed an order, returned a product, demanded a refund, come to the site and not ordered, etc.
The engineering in a system like this is a straightforward matter of SQL
tables and Web scripts. What's hard are the business rules. Here are
As a Web developer, I don't think there are customer value management technical issues that are distinct from those associated with personalization on non-commercial sites. But as a publisher or service designer, you should at least be aware that you'll have to spend a few weeks thinking about what rules to implement.
Installing and maintaining an RDBMS is a fair amount of work. If we were going to all that trouble to make the Web service work, it seemed like a good idea to eventually run production and accounting from the same database. Of course, what seems like a good idea to an engineer doesn't always seem like a good idea to a business person. The management of the Press wasn't ready to consider fundamental changes to the rest of the business.
One side effect of this decision was that it got us out of the on-line credit card verification business. We'd just have to pipe credit card numbers along with orders to the existing accounting system and let those folks handle them the way they handled other credit card orders. If a customer gave us a bad number, we'd email him.
I argued for an invisible shopping cart. A user would click on a product and get an order form. After submitting it with shipping address and credit card number, a magic cookie would be written back to his browser. The user would be offered the opportunity to continue shopping. If he clicked on an "order" link again, he'd be offered the opportunity to add the item to his previous order. The system would degrade gracefully. If the user's browser didn't adhere to the Netscape magic cookie spec, he'd still be able to place orders for products, but it would be a little more cumbersome. If an order had already been transmitted to the old Data General Nova system then the user wouldn't be offered the "add to old order" option. If the user quit his browser and restarted, he wouldn't get the "add to old order" option.
We decided to go for the invisible cart. Orders initiated the previous day would be transmitted in a batch from the RDBMS to the legacy system every morning at 7:00 am. That meant a user had between 7 and 31 hours to complete an order using the invisible cart.
To avoid typing 6000 book titles, we got a text file dump of the data in
the Data General Nova system. Then we wrote some Perl scripts to
convert these into SQL inserts and fed the whole batch to Illustra's
Unix shell client. We wrote some AOLserver Tcl scripts to
semi-automatically transfer over book jacket images and long
descriptions from files on the old Web server. We decided not to store
book and journal images in the RDBMS. Instead, we kept a Unix file
system directory for each catalog item. For books, the AOLserver Tcl
script would look in the directory for
cover-sm.jpg. If present, it would be displayed on the
book catalog page (see http://mitpress.mit.edu/book-home.tcl?isbn=0262650398).
If not, we'd serve a page with a slightly different design (see http://mitpress.mit.edu/book-home.tcl?isbn=0262560631).
bookstable for basic title and description for the ISBN key in the URL.
reader_commentstable to pull out reader comments for display right on the page.
bookstable again to find related items, such as a paperbound version of the same title.
bookstable to find other books by the same author(s).
Ben eventually figured it all out and designed a beautiful looking site with stacked tables. The first table contained the information from the first three RDBMS queries and the last contained the "books by the same author" content plus the page footer. It was fast and looked great. Despite my general blame-the-graphic-designer philosophy, I had to admit that overall it was a huge improvement.
I went over to mitpress.mit.edu just now (August 10, 1998) to make sure of exactly where in the page Ben had put in the split table. I found that the site has been redesigned a bit since that meeting. Each book page is a navigation header plus one big HTML table so that the user stares at a blank screen while Illustra grinds. Oh well....
The invisible shopping cart system and sending orders to the legacy system turned out to work just fine. The site has processed many thousands of orders without imposing an undue burden on folks at MIT Press.
The AOLserver/Illustra combination turned out to require minimal maintenance. MIT Press did not have to hire full-time computer science geeks, database administrators, or Unix system administrators. They've been able to concentrate almost all of their efforts on developing new Web content.
Should anyone be impressed by these results?
Yes! We put about four person-weeks of programming into the site and it has the same functional capabilities as amazon.com circa 1997 (amazon had more than 10 full-time programmers). We did not waste server resources with CGI scripts that reopened the database and hence MIT Press did not have to invest $150,000 in a monster Unix box. We did not use an application server or otherwise invest programmer resources in layers of abstraction to insulate the site from Illustra-specific SQL. Consequently, a variety of people without formal computer science backgrounds have been able to edit and adapt the AOLserver Tcl scripts to their needs, extend the administration section, or get me to swoop in and make the occasional surgical change.
It wouldn't be so impressive if there weren't so many folks out there who spend $1 million on infrastructure, packaged software, and software development before they can take their first order.
Each journal needs to have institutional, individual, and student subscription rates. Back issue prices need to be similarly trifold. Finally, there are separate prices for back issues that are "double issues". In a turnkey catalog system, you'd probably have to represent one journal as nine separate products in order to offer these nine separate prices. That would mean MIT Press personnel would have to change journal titles or editorial board info in nine separate database rows.
Because we did not use packaged software, we were able to program in lots of shortcuts on the admin side. The administration home page for a book has the stuff you'd expect from a commercial software package, e.g., links to all the orders for the book and the readers who've expressed interest in the book. But it also has one-click catalog maintenance shortcuts, e.g., "Record this title as being out of print" or "Change the price by editing the old price here and hitting carriage return."
It turns out that banks never wanted to do anything like this. They left credit card processing to a handful of third-party companies such as First Data (http://www.firstdata.com), NOVA (http://www.novainfo.com), and Paymentech (http://www.paymentech.com). When a consumer's card gets swiped at the supermarket, the little terminal talks to NOVA, for example, and NOVA talks to the consumer's bank and the supermarket's bank.
Okay, so now the obvious thing would be for each of these third-party companies to park a transaction server on the Internet. Then a merchant can choose to contact NOVA or Paymentech by sending encrypted packets rather than dialing up. But it apparently turned out that even NOVA and Paymentech didn't want to wade into the public Internet.
One downside of this approach is that you'll be forced to maintain a
highly secure Web server/database containing customer credit card numbers.
CyberCash and ICOMS exemplify two very different Web service architectures. In the CyberCash case, the merchant server collects credit card numbers from consumers. The merchant server then talks to CyberCash to find out if the card is valid and bill the card. This lets the merchant offer the customer options like "Use the same credit card as your last order?" If the merchant becomes unhappy with CyberCash, this architecture lets the merchant switch transaction vendors without consumers ever knowing.
What's the downside of the CyberCash architecture? It imposes a programming and security burden on the merchant. For example, if the merchant's programmers aren't competent, customers may get billed for orders that are never entered or shipped. Alternatively, orders may get entered for customers whose credit cards failed authorization. Customer credit card numbers may reside in the merchant database. So if the merchant's database is compromised, not only can the intruder determine who purchased what, but he will get a big table of credit card numbers as well.
The ICOMS architecture assumes that the merchant is incompetent to write programs. A merchant can only embed "digital offers" (little blocks of HTML) in static .html Web documents. As soon as the customer wants to add something to a shopping basket or place an order, the digital offers bounce the customer over to a transaction server run by ICOMS. ICOMS will eventually notify the merchant server that an order was placed. The big advantage of ICOMS is that you don't have to be constantly paranoid about security. Your customers' credit card number might be compromised, but it will be someone else's fault!
A big disadvantage of the ICOMS architecture is that your overall Web service may become unreliable and slow due to factors beyond the merchant's control. For example, under the CyberCash architecture, even if the merchant's server couldn't reach CyberCash, it could be programmed to continue to take orders and then process them in a batch when CyberCash became reachable again. But with ICOMS, the customer can't even type in a credit card numbers or address if ICOMS is down. Furthermore, it is the ICOMS server that offers customers a "use the same credit card as before" option. So the consumer becomes tied to the ICOMS network and not to the merchant. Finally, you might not be able to achieve your user interface and customer service pages goals with the ICOMS-style architecture.
If you're tempted to use the ICOMS architecture and let another server handle the collection of payment and shipping information, why not go whole-hog and let another server handle the distribution of sales information as well? If your payment pages don't need a custom flow then maybe your whole shop doesn't need a custom flow. You can go over to store.yahoo.com, configure a shop using a Web browser, and pay them $100 a month to present offers and collect orders for you. Yahoo Store offers an interesting comment on the state of ecommerce:
"Although Yahoo! Store supports real-time credit card authorizations through Cybercash, we do not recommend it for most merchants. ... using Cybercash tends to be more trouble than it is worth.
-- http://store.yahoo.com/vw/cybercash.html (August 10, 1998)
Some of these listings are deceptive in that they are really front-ends to more basic services. If you don't want to grapple with CyberCash's CGI scripts, there are a few dozen ISPs and Web development companies who will sell you simpler less-general scripts. However, it is hard to tell from reading their Web sites that what they've developed is a 100-line Perl script and not a complete system to compete with CyberCash or Verifone.
In the long run, the SET protocol could potentially bring the world
closer to the "consumers dealing with merchants dealing with banks as
peers on the Internet" model that you'd naively assume was the way
everything had always worked. However, if you're a Web publisher,
"potentially" and "long run" aren't very interesting ideas.
Furthermore, all of the payment APIs to which you can write code in 1998
claim to be SET-compliant. So if the great SET day ever arrives, you
might not have to change even one of your scripts.
An Extra Layer of Transactions
Generally you can rely on the relational database management system
(RDBMS) sitting behind your Web service to handle transactions. You can
tell Oracle to "change all of these things and if any of them fail, then
undo all the changes and insertions that suceeded." Oracle is extremely
reliable at rolling back transactions but your Oracle system isn't
capable of rolling back a change on a non-cooperating foreign
system, e.g., CyberCash's server or the First Data computer system into
which your Web server dialed.
Suppose that you decide to implement the following architecture:
There are potentially many ways of getting around this problem, but I think the simplest approach instead is to
Our response? Too boring. We specialize in community Web sites and grand public services like www.scorecard.org that satisfy our bloated egos when the sites are featured on network TV news.
"We want you to process a few million orders in the next two years. At around $50 each. We have the budget to make this work."
Oh, well, gee, that sounds like an interesting challenge after all...
Another motivation behind this decision was that we expected to be able to avoid keeping cleartext credit card numbers in our database if we used one of these fancy Internet commerce gateway services.
We looked at the vPOS system from VeriFone and rejected it immediately because it only works with Microsoft Internet Information Server (we don't know anyone who understands NT well enough to run a Web service from Windows NT), Netscape Enterprise Server (we aren't willing to suffer with Netscape's programming tools, such as LiveWire), and Oracle Web Server (our code library is in AOLserver Tcl).
We looked at http://www.cybercash.com. It offers three options for building "your on-line store":
Due to a combination of bad programming and user interface design on the CyberCash site plus sluggish customer service personnel, we weren't able to even download the software for 48 hours. The downloaded kit was a gzipped Unix tar file, but it bore no extension so it took a bit of Unix expertise to (1) figure out what kind of file it was, and (2) rename it to foobar.tar.gz and gunzip it.
At this point, we had to decide whether to use the Perl interface or the C library. In general, we prefer to use interpreted languages for Web software development. However, since we were building the entire site in AOLserver Tcl, it seemed tasteless to maintain some of the pages in Perl CGI. Jin spent a night writing a 200-line C program (see http://www.photo.net/wtr/thebook/cybercash.c).
The CyberCash API consists of exchanging key-value pairs.
There is really only one basic C procedure that one needs to call and
Jin's code is a bridge between the CyberCash key-value data structure
ns_set data structure. All the interesting
information about the API is in Appendix B of
To the extent that CyberCash is tricky, it is mostly because the credit card world is archaic and tricky. There are two fundamental steps in processing a credit card order. The first step is authorization. The merchant gives the processor a card number, expiration date, name on card, street address, and zip code. The processor is fundamentally checking that the card number is valid and that the cardholder has sufficient credit to handle the amount authorized. Given the religious zeal with which merchants collect your card expiration dates, you'd think that processors did something clever with this. In fact all they do is make sure that it is a date in the future. So if a consumer's card expires in 06/00 and he gives you 01/00, First Data will not reject the transaction. The address verification service (see below) is purely to help merchants assess the risk of sending out a product and then later finding out that the credit card number was purloined. The processor says "Zip code matched but address did not" or "Nothing matched". The merchant has to decide whether or not to take the risk of shipping the good.
The second step in processing a credit card order is settlement or "capture." With a hard good, the merchant would typically authorize when it gets an order and capture when it ships the product. With a soft good, e.g., the sale of access to a Web service or document, the merchant would typically capture immediately after authorization.
Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that processors try to conserve their network and server resources by coercing merchants into performing settlements in batches of five or more. A merchant can kick CyberCash into autosettlement mode whereby Cybercash periodically sweeps its database to find transactions that are authorized and marked for settlement. So the hard goods merchant's two basic operations become "mauthonly" (to authorize; done when order is received) and "postauth" (to mark for settlement; done when good is shipped). A soft goods merchant can put Cybercash into auto-mark, auto-settle mode whereby authorized transactions are immediately marked for settlement.
Another nice thing about Cybercash is that they have a full Web site
where a merchant can go to review all the orders, do refunds, run cards
one at a time, etc.
That leaves one big remaining hole: If CyberCash were unreachable or could not reach the card processor or the card processor were down, we'd have to either bounce the customer or keep his card number and retry later.
What would plug this last hole is for CyberCash to give us a public key. We'd encrypt the consumer's card number immediately upon receipt and stuff it into our Oracle database. Then if we needed to retry an authorization, we'd simply send CyberCash a message with the encrypted card number. They would decrypt the card number with their private key and process the transaction normally. If a cracker broke into our server, the handful of credit card numbers in our database would be unreadable without Cybercash's private key. The same sort of architecture would let us do reorders or returns six months after an order.
CyberCash has "no plans" to do anything like this.
What particularly scares a bank about this is that they've already given the merchant the money. Consider the case of a Times Square camera shop. They take $1 million in credit card orders for cameras that they promise to ship in four weeks. The money gets piped into their bank account immediately. They take the money to Brazil. Two months later, their merchant bank is forced to refund $1 million to various cardholders' banks, with no recourse to the merchant.
Before inflicting our software on the Fortune 500 company, we decided to open a test merchant account through which we'd run charitable contributions to a couple of animal shelters (see http://www.photo.net/samantha/gift-shop.html). We thought it would be easy to get an account from BankBoston. They'd recently discovered that Ricardo S. Carrasco, one of their senior lending officers, had written $73 million in fraudulent loans in Latin America and then disappeared. We therefore figured that ArsDigita would look great by comparison. We'd been customers since 1979, had $175,000 on deposit, and no connections to Argentine businessmen with "histories of criminal and financial problems."
It turned out that we weren't quite BankBoston's dream customer as we'd envisioned but five weeks later, we had our merchant account. If you're setting up a site, it is probably unwise to rely on service faster than that from a typical bank.
This doesn't sound so bad, does it? We just need an Oracle table with 50 rows, each one containing the tax rate for a particular state. Actually it turns out that there are about 7,000 taxing jurisdictions in the United States and 17,000 different tax rates. Okay, that's no problem either. Oracle can handle a 17,000-row table quite easily. We can buy the data for $3,000 a year from http://www.salestax.com. A few straightforward Tcl scripts and SQL queries and we can compute the amount of tax to collect based on the zip code of the shipping address.
So what's the problem?
We've collected the tax. We haven't paid the tax. We now need to write checks and fill out forms for those 7,000 taxing jurisdictions nationwide. Most states let you remit your local jurisdiction taxes to the state along with a schedule and then the state revenue folks distribute the appropriate amounts periodically to local governments. Still, assuming that our sales are initially light, we could be writing one or two checks and filling out one or two forms for every product that we sell. We will be hiring a big staff of people to sit in front of a forms CD-ROM from http://www.salestax.com or a more automated software package from http://www.corptax.com, http://www.taxware.com, or http://www.vertexinc.com.
The interesting thing to note here is that big companies that have always sold wholesale may initially see the Internet as a great opportunity to cut through layers and get directly to the consumer. Yet the cost of building a sales tax compliance department may wipe out many years of profits from Internet sales.
Should we thus build accounting reports that show orders when they were confirmed by a consumer? No. It turns out that this makes accounting way too hard because assets can be double-counted. For example, the consumer on December 30, 1998 says he wants to buy a widget for $100. You ship the widget on January 3, 1999. At the end of 1998, your books will show that you have a widget in inventory, value $90, plus an order for the same widget, value $100.
Companies get around this problem by recognizing revenue when the product ships. The widget gets removed from inventory and the order gets added to revenue. There is never a risk of double counting.
For the charity test, we used our "ArsDigita Shoppe" product, a comprehensibly small set of AOLserver Tcl scripts that merchants are expected to customize. There are only a handful of database tables in the system. Note that they are all prefixed with "sh_" so that they can be installed in an existing Oracle database without much chance of name conflicts with previously defined tables. Here are the basics of the data model:
sh_products, containing product descriptions and prices, keyed by
sh_orders, containing customer information such as shipping address, whether or not the order was shipped, and records of conversations with CyberCash
sh_problems_log, to record transactions where CyberCash failed or did not return
sh_country_codes; used to enforce an integrity constraint on the country field of
We decided that we'd build the system assuming the merchant had put
CyberCash into "auto-settle, manual-mark" mode. For products flagged as
soft goods in the
sh_products table, we'd do an "mauthonly"
and then an immediate "postauth". For regular products, we'd have a
fulfillment section among the admin pages where whoever was doing
shipping could mark orders as shipped when they went out the door.
The order status would be updated to shipped and CyberCash would be sent
Though I'm sure the ledger and message-based approaches feel natural to
people in the business data processing world, they feel awkward to me.
I visualize an order as being in one of a finite number of states. For
confirmed means the customer has pressed the
submit button and indicated a desire to place the order. From
confirmed, it is possible to get to one of three states:
authorized_minus_avs. Whether a state transition occurs
and to which new state depends on what our software gets back from
CyberCash. Here's a graphical representation of the finite-state
An authorized order is put into theconfirmed | | |_______________________ | | | | failed_authorization | | | authorized_plus_avs authorized_minus_avs | | |--------------------------- | shipped | | returned | | refunded Note: the order can also be put into the state "void" by the shoppe administrator from any state prior to "shipped"
shippedstate when the merchant clicks on the admin fulfillment form's "confirm that this has been shipped" box. As these transitions occur, we are simply updating the
order_statecolumn in the
sh_orderstable. That doesn't mean we're losing information versus the ledger approach. There are extra columns in the
sh_orderstable to hold the data that accumulate upon state transitions.
For example, after the Tcl order handling procedure talks to CyberCash to do the initial authorization, it records the CyberCash transaction ID, authorization code from the credit card processor and Address Verification Service code returned by CyberCash.
If a merchant ships a $1000 widget to a crook and the real cardholder complains, the merchant has to give $1000 back to the bank. In order to help mail-order telephone-order merchants manage this risk, the card processors run what seems to be an essentially separate system called Address Verification Service. They take the first 20 characters of the street address and the billing zip code and return a one-character code:
authorized_plus_avs. The merchant also needs to make a business decision for every order that lands into
authorized_minus_avs. To ship or not to ship? That's the question. ArsDigita Shoppe by default will solicit a customer's telephone number and presumably the merchant will be advised to email or telephone the customer for verification.
Note that in our experience AVS is not very reliable. For our first few successful orders, all of which were from legit folks, here are our stats:
The 11 cases in which both address and five-digit zip codes match looks pretty good until you look at our source code and note that we neither solicit the card billing street address from the customer nor do we ever provide any street address to CyberCash. We only solicit card billing zip from the customer and send that through to CyberCash. Consequently, the 28 cases of "zip code matches" are to be expected. In two cases, the AVS code raises an unreasonable suspicion ("no match"), and in two more cases we couldn't get an AVS code at all. The one "card type not supported" (S) was a friend's Mastercard. Oddly enough, it was issued by BankBoston, our merchant bank.
AVS Code Count N 2 R 1 S 1 Y 11 Z 28
I've written a little bit elsewhere in this book about how to make an Oracle installation that never loses committed transactions, even if a disk drive fails. Suffice it to say that you probably need at least eight physical disk drives plus a full-time staff person who has read every book on my Oracle bookshelf (http://www.photo.net/wtr/bookshelf.html).
How to make sure that CyberCash never loses committed orders? This is something you'd hope you won't ever have to do. CyberCash runs a database server and therefore is subject to the same db/sysadmin challenges as everyone else. I haven't talked to enough of CyberCash's internal people to say whether I believe that they'll never screw up their database administration.
ArsDigita Shoppe defends against failures to communicate with CyberCash
by periodically running clean-up processes looking for orders in
intermediate states. Scheduled by AOLserver's
ns_schedule_proc (like the Unix cron facility, but
schedules a procedure to run inside AOLserver where it has access to all
the AOLserver API calls), we have the following procedures:
sh_sweep_for_cybercash_zombies. Runs every hour. Looks for orders in the
confirmedstate that are older than 30 minutes. Queries CyberCash to find out whether or not an authorization request was received and, if so, whether it succeeded. If CyberCash is reachable, the procedure will always push the order either into
failed_authorizationor one of the authorized states.
sh_sweep_for_unmarked_shipped_orders. Runs every hour. Looks for orders in the
shippedstate that are older than 30 minutes but for which we have not recorded a "postauth status" code back from CyberCash (i.e., those orders that should be marked for settlement but might not be). Queries CyberCash to find out whether or not order is marked. If not, the procedure will try again to mark it.
sh_query_for_settled_and_setlret. Runs at 3:14 am every day (if the time seems strange, see Eve Andersson's site at http://eveander.com). By 3:14 eastern time, CyberCash theoretically should have settled all the previous day's marked orders. This procedure grabs those settlement codes and updates the
E: Why did this valid credit card fail with error message "Invalid Credit Card Number" today between 10:30 and 10:49 am, even though it has since been tested and found to be valid?
G: It could be because of Internet traffic.
E: Why would that cause the message "Invalid Credit Card Number"?
G: Maybe it got garbled in transmission.
E: How could it get garbled 12 times?
G: Maybe the system was down. Let me check... Yes, it was down shortly before 11 this morning.
char(3)Oracle column), but we're able to settle transactions.
www: ~% traceroute cr.cybercash.com traceroute to hcr2.cybercash.com (18.104.22.168), 30 hops max, 40 byte packets 1 main-98.sjc.above.net (22.214.171.124) 6.86 ms 14.535 ms 20.903 ms 2 main-98.sjc.above.net (126.96.36.199) 1.336 ms 1.209 ms 1.243 ms 3 paix-main-oc3.above.net (188.8.131.52) 5.883 ms mae-east-paix.above.net (184.108.40.206) 85.714 ms 84.983 ms 4 Hssi0-1-0.GW1.TCO1.ALTER.NET (220.127.116.11) 76.284 ms 70.12 ms 71.111 ms 5 421.atm10-0-0.cr2.tco1.alter.net (18.104.22.168) 71.226 ms 70.655 ms 77.131 ms 6 Fddi0-0.Vienna3.VA.Alter.Net (22.214.171.124) 78.618 ms 164.081 ms 85.963 ms 7 CyberCash-gw.customer.ALTER.NET (126.96.36.199) 98.223 ms 74.49 ms 72.549 ms 8 188.8.131.52 (184.108.40.206) 79.065 ms 80.27 ms 75.728 ms 9 cust-gw.cybercash.com (220.127.116.11) 80.119 ms 81.686 ms 79.392 ms 10 ans-gw.cybercash.com (18.104.22.168) 84.779 ms 85.597 ms 83.998 ms 11 cust-gw.cybercash.com (22.214.171.124) 83.425 ms 81.273 ms 88.299 ms 12 ans-gw.cybercash.com (126.96.36.199) 87.992 ms 87.012 ms 89.312 ms 13 cust-gw.cybercash.com (188.8.131.52) 84.027 ms 84.861 ms 85.051 ms 14 ans-gw.cybercash.com (184.108.40.206) 90.975 ms 90.937 ms 87.995 ms 15 cust-gw.cybercash.com (220.127.116.11) 85.138 ms 90.371 ms 84.609 ms 16 ans-gw.cybercash.com (18.104.22.168) 93.612 ms 93.498 ms 93.073 ms
Some of the publishers who use the ecommerce module for the ArsDigita Community System (see http://www.photo.net/doc/ecommerce.html) use CyberSource rather than CyberCash. CyberSource has some nice extras such as calculation of sales tax. What about reliability? The December 22, 1999 PC Week cover story is "CyberSource server outage strains e-tailers". The best part of the article, chronicling a 7-hour outage, is the report that William Donahoo, VP Marketing at CyberSource, "promised such an outage would never happen again."
For our Fortune 500 client, we built a fancy system that is robust to CyberCash failures. If CyberCash is unreachable or returns an inconclusive answer, we assume that the credit card number is valid and have clean-up cron jobs that keep trying to authorize the card in hopes that CyberCash has come back to life. This code turns out to be pretty complicated, especially since it has to deal with the case of "that guy who placed an order 18 hours ago is over his credit limit but we didn't find out until just now because CyberCash was down."
An alternative architecture that we haven't explored would rely on at
least two IP-based services like CyberCash. When a new order came in,
we'd try to authorize via Credit Card Gateway A. If it was
unreachable or inconclusive, we'd try to authorize via Credit Card
Can we fix all of the ills of the modern age with ecommerce? Probably not. In fact, it seems likely that ecommerce will add to the discontents of civilization ("we already killed Downtown; now let's go after the Mall"). But I think it is possible to use technology to ameliorate the problem identified by Marx. A company can use its Web site to let consumers talk to the people who make the products and vice versa.
Instead of working an eight-hour factory floor shift, why can't a worker spend six hours a day building products, one hour a day answering customer tech support email, and one hour a day answering sales inquiries? For semi-custom goods, why can't the people building the product answer the "When is it going to be done" questions? Or directly ask the "Are you sure you want it with two screws on top because it would look much nicer fastened from the edges" questions?
Note that this kind of direct customer-worker contact could become a competitive advantage for companies manufacturing domestically. Could I communicate effectively with the 14-year-old Indonesian girl who made my Nike sneakers? Perhaps not. But my Toyota Sienna minivan was built in Kentucky. I'd love to e-mail the folks who built it a picture of Alex in the driver's seat.