About MDD - Subscription Info
December 2000
Vol. 9, No. 12, pp. 30–34.
Focus: Chemical Safety
and the Web


photo of spider webSpending on the Web—It's All Relational

E-commerce is taking off, but do we understand the databases behind the purchases?

The Internet has allowed consumers and businesses to add another dimension to their purchasing power. Online purchasing hasn’t caught on as quickly as some online vendors had anticipated; some commercial sites have really taken off, others have gone under. So what’s the problem? Part of it could be that consumers don’t understand what’s going on when they click on the ubiquitous “submit” button. The lack of knowledge may make some consumers fearful, while e-commerce is set to revolutionize purchasing for everyone, including the chemical industry. So let’s take a look at the inner workings of an e-commerce Web site, from the moment a customer enters the site to the point when an order is processed.

Database Building Blocks
A database-powered Web site separates a fly-by-night Web site from a high-octane Web site by providing additional functionality such as searching and dynamic content. A relational database enables this functionality.

Tuesday's Weather
Buffalo NY 52 38
New York NY 55 42
Seattle WA 48 40
U.S. States
State State Code Country
New York NY USA
Washington WA USA
Wisconsin WI USA

The tables above contain information that most of us see everyday, but they could be tables in a database.

So, if there is a collection of tables, why do we call it a relational database? Tables can have a built-in relationship with other tables, giving the data an added dimension. For example, let’s take the weather table and build a relationship to the U.S. States table. The weather table and the state table both have a column containing the state abbreviation or state code. This relationship can be used to link the two tables. The advantage is that now we can ask the database to return the temperatures from all cities in the state of New York, even if we don’t know the abbreviation for New York State. The database will go to the state table, look up New York, work across to the state code column, and grab the state code. Once the database has the state code, it will ask the weather table to give it all the cities and temperatures located where the state is NY. Designing and working with a full-scale database model is much more difficult and complicated than this, but these are the building blocks.

E-Commerce Future
E-commerce may be a buzzword at present, but the implications of this technology are immense. In the near future, companies may handle all their purchases through e-marketplaces. E-commerce versions of office supply companies have had great success with this already, and science-oriented versions exist in the form of SciQuest, Chemdex, and e-commerce versions of “bricks and mortar” distributors. The beauty of these types of efforts is the savings in merchandise costs, procurement time, and staff.

Traditional purchasing duties in many companies are handled by purchasing departments, which serve to approve purchases and record transactions according to department budgets. The purchasing level allows the company to control how much individuals and departments spend and what they spend it on. This is essential, because errant or maverick spending could waste millions of dollars.

The same control can now be implemented with e-marketplaces. The e-market can be customized, allowing individual companies to supply rules that can determine what an employee or department can buy. The e-market will also automatically handle the records for all the purchases, simplifying matters. When a researcher needs a column, he or she can go directly to a page, select the exact model needed, and buy it.

An e-commerce Web site does not differ from a “normal” Web site. A typical Web site offers links to information about a company, such as its finances, products, owners, personnel, and other interesting tidbits of data. An e-commerce Web site is not a separate entity from the basic site; rather, it is a complement to the company’s basic Internet presence. It has become a common tool for increasing revenue in today’s digital world.

Reading this article won’t make you into a webmaster. If only it were that easy. The intention of this article is to peel away the mystery of Web transactions and enable you to be more comfortable with purchasing online in the future. At the fundamental level, e-commerce is pretty simple: You visit a site, pick what you want to buy, enter your payment, and click on the submit button to send your order to the company without any human intervention. From Fortune 500 companies to “mom and pop dot coms”, this is the lowest common denominator of Internet transacting.

For our example, we will use a fictitious company, ABC Chromatography Supplies, Inc. Like many companies, ABC Chromatography Supplies offers discounts to online customers to make online purchasing attractive. So what happens when we place an online order? Let’s take a look at ABC’s online ordering form. We’re going to examine the Web site, the way your order is captured, and what transpires between your computer and ABC’s Web server.

Online Catalogs
Online stores or catalogs, like most things in life, are not as simple as they appear. Some sites have catalogs of a few products, and others contain millions of products or even custom options that increase complexity. To decrease the development time and costs of creating and maintaining a Web site that displays thousands of different items, companies often use a database to store the information and a template page to dynamically create a Web page for display. How does it work? How does the Web server know what product I want to see?

Well, as smart as computers make us look, without us, they are nothing more then dust-collecting piles of silicon, plastic, and metal. The template is a Web developer’s best friend. It allows developers to take data and then fill in the blanks in the template and display it. For example, if you choose to look at HPLC columns on ABC’s site, you will find a list of different kinds of columns, and after clicking on the kind you want to see, the names of individual products will appear. If you see one that you want, you can click on the product to bring up more information about it, such as dimensions, packing types, compatibility, etc. When Web surfers request more information about a product, the Web page sends the product name and perhaps an identification number to the site’s Web server. The server receives the name and number and retrieves the product information from the database. Once the product information is found, the server loads the product template Web page and fills in the blanks with the data from the database. Then, voilà, we have a Web page complete with the requested information.

This process simplifies updating a site and makes it more accurate. Instead of the tedious process of updating each page when new products are introduced or specs are changed, the database can be updated as developments happen, and there is no need to update information in different areas. If ABC Chromatography Supplies had to update each individual Web page, the likelihood of having outdated information in its Web site catalog would be high. Also, there would be a greater chance for parts of the catalog not to be updated at all.

The surfer, database, and Web page template are all pieces of a Web site puzzle. Without one of them, the other two are really worthless (in this schema). But once you put all three together, you have a complete e-commerce Web site.

Shopping Carts
What happens after you choose a product and would like to order something else? A Web site should not be like a vending machine that can only deliver one product at a time. As you browse through ABC’s online catalog, you can place the products into a “shopping cart”, just as if you were shopping in a physical store. There are several methods used to make shopping carts, but most sites use cookies, which are small pieces of information placed on your computer by a Web site. This allows Web sites to give your computer the item number for a product that you want. Your computer remembers the item number, and when you want to look at what you’re ordering or are ready to complete your order, the Web page asks your computer for the item number. The Web site then generates a customized page filled with information about the item numbers that your computer stored. It gets the information and pictures of these products from the database that also powers the catalog. Once you review the product on your order list, there is a “check-out” button that leads to the actual ordering process.

Online ordering forms are similar to mail-order catalog forms. The online method is advantageous for vendors because it saves money. For instance, when ABC uses mail-order forms or phone orders, it must pay people to wait by the phone to enter the order information or invest in equipment and people to enter written orders into a database.

If you’re using ABC’s site for the first time, the next step is to enter your name, address, and billing information (usually your credit card number or a purchase account) before your order can be completed. After this information is filled out on the screen and submitted, the Web server enters it into a database of customers and orders. ABC also asks you to choose a name and password so that the next time you visit the site, you can just enter your name and password and the database will retrieve your stored name, address, and billing information. You save time by not having to enter the same information, and ABC has an easier time keeping records by avoiding duplication.

The beauty of databases comes into play here. The database can “relate” what you buy to your name and address record, thereby tracking your purchases. This benefits both ABC and you; however, it has always raised privacy questions. ABC benefits because it now knows what its customers are ordering. ABC can query the database to find out what products are most popular, which ones are increasing in popularity, and where its customers are located. Armed with this information, ABC can select which products to keep in stock and where to locate distribution centers. This helps ABC’s customers by shortening delivery times and reducing delays.

Richard Kim is a systems analyst currently working with an information technology company in Washington, DC. Comments and questions for the author can be addressed to the Editorial Office by e-mail at tcaw@acs.org, by fax at 202-776-8166 or by post at 1155 16th Street, NW; Washington, DC 20036.

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