Originally Published: Tuesday, 24 August 1999 Author: Richard Knowles
Published to: Headline News/Applications Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Planning on Ecommerce? Try MiniVend On For Size

A report on the state of MiniVend, a Free Software Ecommerce system.

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By Richard Knowles

Introduction

During the past two months I have been gathering information for future articles on Ecommerce. One of the products in that research is a Perl-based application called MiniVend. The provider of MiniVend touts it as being a full-featured Ecommerce solution which piqued my curiousity, so I decided to speak with the product's main proponent, Mr. Mike Heins. I was shocked to learn that Mike lived in the very town I lived in, and so without too much effort I soon found myself chatting face-to-face with Mike at his home here in Oxford, OH. Besides being a lucky coincidence, I was also able to gain a valuable perspective of the product that I would not have gotten had I spoke only by phone or some other method.

The Early Days of MiniVend

Mike first began in consulting by tackling a book writing project. Mid-way through however, there were complications with the publisher that caused him to reevaluate his relationship with them, and ultimately led to his pulling out of the project.

At about that same time, since he was a frequent poster to comp.lang.perl.misc he became engaged in writing a shopping cart script for an early Ecommerce project. As work proceeded on it, he came into contact with Andrew Wilcox who was at that time working on another shopping cart implementation called "Vend". Time went on and Mike suggested some enhancements to Vend, including enhancements to make use of the dbm relational database native to UNIX. He also began to suggest some changes to the HTML features and expansions to the catalogs. Vend had reached its third version by that time.

Vend and MiniVend Go Separate Paths

Andrew unfortunately had other plans for Vend. Andrew envisioned Vend to be a much larger application focused in another direction. He and Mike decided that Vend should go two separate paths and as a result of this, Mike inherited a version of Vend which he dubbed MiniVend. The gentleman's agreement he struck with with Andrew was that MiniVend would be his and that it would support smaller catalogs,. Vend would proceed to work with the much larger systems and larger catalogs. Mike commented that Vend was very complicated, and that he wished to make a less complex version.

On February 23, 1996, Mike made the first actual release of MiniVend. It was released under the GPL and would continue to be distributed under the copyleft. He said that there are over 33 thousand lines of code in MiniVend proper, and many more if you take the Perl libraries into consideration. MiniVend is a very full-featured product!

MiniVend Acceptance

According to Mike, there are thousands of users for MiniVend. He estimates that there are 100 thousand downloads per year of the product. As with all free software, Mike says that he gets infrequent queries, but he estimates that if he was to use the number of UID's created on Minivend.com he could make an estimation. There are 620 UIDs, and the MiniVend mailing list (which he hosts) has over 1000 email ID's) In fact, the mailing list is running around 32 messages per day!

At the present time, Mike has more work than he knows what to do with from customizing MiniVend installations. The reason why MiniVend is so robust in stems from Mike's policy of always implementing enhancements created from his commercial work into the MiniVend product. MiniVend users then continuously benefit from this work. If a particular customer wishes enhancements which would not be included into the product, then the charges for the work would be higher.

MiniVend Databases

MiniVend, by virtue of its Perl heritage, works well with just about all of the databases available today. Mike said that the preponderance of users employ the internal MiniVend dbm database, however there are implementations using MySQL and even some Postgres based systems. Minivend uses the DBI and DBM perl modules for generically interfacing with database systems.

MiniVend.com

The best way to gain a picture of Minivend's capabilities is to visit the MiniVend web site. It is there that Mike has a demo version of MiniVend running and it also doubles as his company website. Mike walked me through many of the system's capabilities during my short visit and I was impressed at how robust the product was.

As a side-note, an area of particular interest for me was the user rating section of his website. Here, MiniVend users are solicited for their opinions about the product, and the results, good or bad, are available elsewhere on the site. The average user satisfaction rating is around 8.7 and the installer/maintainer rating is over 9. Over 100 contributors have written comments as well. Mike admits that ease of understanding is one of the problem areas for Minivend but he said that future enhancements will address that.

Versions and Release Plans

The current and available version which you can download from ftp.minivend.com is version 3.14. Version 3.15 is due to be out soon and release 4.0 will be out after the start of the new year. Version 4.0, besides including ASP syntax support, will also strip out much of the past version compatibility components which will result in a more compact and sleek system.

Possible future projects are :

  • Cleanup of documentation
  • Creation of a CD-ROM combo with a printed manual to assist new users
  • Address the ease of learning problems
  • Improve the catalog search speeds (to permit larger and larger catalogs)
  • Minivend and the Overall Industry
I asked Mike what he felt the Industry needed from his perspective, and he said that there are huge opportunities in the area of integration of the Web Ecommerce front end and the more traditional accounting systems around which most businesses operate. He also said that there is much work to be done with improving the integration with the Brick and Mortar POS systems currently in place today.

Integration With Credit Card Handlers

MiniVend has an internal Credit Card handling system, or it can make use of CyberCash or one of the other credit card management firms available on the net. From a security perspective, a MiniVend site which doesn't use a CyberCash will store credit card numbers only after they are PGP encrypted. Since Minivend is an open system of course, this capability can be short circuited by the installer. Since unencrypted credit card information is never permitted onto the system disk, Mike feels secure that MiniVend is fairly safe from hacking in that regard.

EDI

MiniVend does have a back-end EDI capability which will be defined and documented in Version 4.0. Such a scheme precludes the necessity of reentry of orders, and permits a Minivend site to forward transactions to partners easily. Mike said that there are quite a few MiniVend-based sites which do this.

Configuration of MiniVend

Because of its complexity, Minivend is often configured using only the demo screens. Although this is not necessarily the best way to install the system, it happens often and it does yield a passable installation. Since the Minivend online manual is over 300 pages, and the product is complex, Mike said that installation is not considered simple or easy.

Current Customers

In order to show me many of the features of Minivend, Mike took me on a tour of a couple of his customer's web sites. A number of them have thousands of transactions per day, and sport very large catalogs. Here is the list of the sites we visited.

http://www.coolios.com http://www.buyitontheweb.com http://www.edgeco.com http://www.valuemedia.com

Conclusion

Minivend is similar to an iceberg. The exposed portion gives little hint as to what lies below. In the brief tour that I was given, I was impressed at the robust nature of the application as well as the large number of features which it supported. Systems costing much more would have a hard time surpassing Minivend in its reliability and completeness. Minivend is a Perl-based Ecommerce package. Package support is provided by:

Mike Heins Internet Robotics 131 Willow Lane, Floor 2 Oxford, OH 45056 mikeh@minivend.com 513.523.7621 FAX 7501





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