SkyMall Adopts Mostly NT-based E-commerce Solution

Although many companies claim to have the "one-stop" solution to cure the e-commerce madness, the folks whom actually implement and manage these systems find that the multivendor approach can be the most profitable.

One example is SkyMall (, a successful and quickly growing e-commerce site that offers everything from computer supplies to pet accessories. Implementing SkyMall's solution is a piece of cake for Scott Dastrupt, SkyMall's chief information officer, but it wasn't always this way.

When SkyMall started out, it used a Unix server for its customer service and shipping data, for example, and used separate data for the Web site. There was virtually no backend integration. Everything done over the Web and everything done in the office was done separately, adding hours of extra work for Dastrupt and others.

To change the situation he called Integrated Information Systems ( IIS, not to be confused with the Microsoft product, is a Tempe, Ariz.-based firm that specializes in helping companies adopt new technologies for evolving business practices. IIS came to SkyMall and realized it had to integrate the data. SkyMall chose Microsoft’s SQL Server, according to Chris Johnson, IIS practice manager. After SkyMall agreed to commit to Windows NT, IIS threw out the Solaris boxes and green screen interfaces and brought in Windows desktops, Internet Information Server and Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition.

"Microsoft provides such an integrated group of tools that it makes leveraging things on NT such an easy process because you're geared towards that platform," Johnson says. He explains that Microsoft products make up about 80 percent of the SkyMall operation. To complete the work, the company turned to third-party vendor tools such as CyberTrust for real-time credit card authorization, Vertex Quantum for tax calculations, and PostalSoft for address verification.

SkyMall's Dastrupt says using a mostly Microsoft solution was a cost-based decision. "Cost of ownership is so much lower because Microsoft is the de facto standard. In the Unix space you'll find the same products at a higher price," Dastrupt explains. "Also, there's a number of vendors creating snap-ins and plug-ins to the Microsoft Management Console."

The most useful and cost-effective part of the SkyMall operation, according to both men, was the creation of a one-stop Web interface to purchase products that is used by both customer and call center representative to order products. Using a mix of Active Server Pages and Java, the Web interface provides the all-in-one, low-cost solution that SkyMall needed.

Dastrupt warns that this isn't an out-of-the-box solution that is up and running in 10 minutes. In fact, his company went through two phases over the course of a year before it got exactly what it wanted. Even though the data center had struggled to implement the first phase, SkyMall was still processing orders and managed to increase profits by 600 percent from 1997 to 1998. Now that the solution has been locked in, SkyMall expects smooth sailing from here on out.