February 26, 2010, 12:00 AM

Can open source open doors for e-commerce companies?

FamilyBedding.com and HerbalLodge.com are finding success with free, customizable open source software to help run their businesses. But the benefits don’t come without drawbacks.

FamilyBedding.com had specific needs when it launched its e-commerce platform in 2004. With more than 200 custom bedding products available in over 100 fabrics, there are thousands of possible combinations, and the retailer needed a site that could handle that complexity. It also needed to build the site on a budget-a very small budget.

The retailer of children’s bedding products says it was able to meet both its needs by building its e-commerce platform using a programming language called PHP that uses open source technology.

Open source is nabbing more attention from e-commerce companies as an inexpensive way to build a completely customizable web site. Open source is a software movement in which creators of a program open it up it to the public to freely use, share and improve upon. Open source programs often are supported by online communities where users contribute ideas, report bugs, develop patches, test out the latest features and share developments.


But, even if the software code is free, open source users can attest that the total cost of ownership of open source software is not zero. Nonetheless, some companies operating on a tight budget have found open source technology a good choice.


Santino Sebastiani, vice president of FamilyBedding.com, chose to use open source technology partly because as a past programmer he had experience using the PHP programming language. He says PHP was the best answer for his site, in part because the lower-end, off-the-shelf programs didn’t give him the features he needed. And a custom-built site by an outside vendor was out of his price range.

Sebastiani launched the site in 2004 using PHP and today is in the middle of migrating FamilyBedding.com again to CakePHP, an open source rapid application development framework that he says will allow faster changes to features like his shopping cart or site search than traditional PHP. FamilyBedding already uses CakePHP for some tasks, such as custom drop-shipping integration and order management software.

While Sebastiani was proficient enough to use PHP on his own, some vendors have developed open source programs customized for e-commerce with features such as shopping carts. Varien offers the Magento platform which uses PHP, and Oxid also offers an e-commerce open source platform that utilizes that language. Such programs offer a pared-down community version for free and make their money by charging for more robust professional editions, support contracts, and integration.

Magento’s enterprise edition, for example, starts at $11,125 a year and includes such features as data encryption, integration with accounting software and merchandising features.

Sports apparel retailer Zumiez uses Magento; The Container Store recently switched to another open source offering from Broadleaf Commerce that runs on the Java EE Platform.


Nathan Wright, owner of online store HerbalLodge.com, a natural Native American-inspired health products retailer, uses an open source platform called VirtueMart that is designed to be used together with content management system Joomla!. Both Virtuemart and Joomla! are written in PHP. Wright says there are upsides and downsides to using open source on his site.


“You operate by yourself,” Wright says. “There is lots of learning, even for techies. If you don`t like to solve problems or don`t have someone who you have immediate contact with who can, open source is not the way to go unless you love to learn.”


Jamie Kail, director of e-commerce services at Lyons Consulting Group, estimates open source e-commerce platforms require a minimum of 20 hours of maintenance per month by a developer well versed in the program.


Wright adds that he has found he has to update his open source software often, and says sometimes those updates can cause problems with other software his company is using. For example, if Joomla! releases a fix for a bug in its program, but Virtuemart does not release a compatible fix, the two programs that were designed to work together can butt heads, Wright says.


He adds that the strength of open source depends on its community. “You have to figure out where to get your answers,” Wright says. “Just because there is a forum, does not mean people will respond. You have to develop a network of forums and people out there who can help you get through the tough problems.”


Still, Wright says he likes that open source gives him more control. Rather than waiting for a vendor to come out with a new feature he says it’s nice to be able to try new things out whenever he wants. “It`s like having an in-house carpenter or designer at a retail store ready to design or build displays whenever you need it.”


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