The elusive Opensource E-Commerce Holy Grail: Multi-Site, Multi-Store
May 7, 2007 (380 Responses)
I GOT INTO OPENSOURCE over two years ago, and started http://www.avalon5.com as a result. Since then I’ve been keeping my eye on developments in this space, and in particular the Opensource CMS/Portal and E-Commerce side of things. The reason for my interest is that I’ve always thought it would make perfect sense to take a good solid and production quality Opensource e-commerce solution and marry it with a decent Blog/Portal/CMS solution; one with the ability to support multiple sites.
Two years ago I looked at the contenders and evaluated their capabilities, and nothing really hit the mark. For the last two weeks I’ve been checking the progress of various products and solutions (hence the lack of reasonable activity here at the site) and unfortunately my conclusion (unless someone can correct me) is that things have not really progressed that much in the last two years either.
There are some commercial products out there which claim to be able to do what I need – but I’m keen to doÂ this with an Opensource solution ratherÂ than a full blown (and expensive) product. Specifically IÂ want to have a single install/codebase which enables me to create sites on the flyÂ (probably as subdomains) for clients, each subsite presenting it’s own front endÂ (templates, shopping cart, taxes, products etc.) to consumers and backend (adminÂ GUI, catalog, configuration items etc.) toÂ vendors. I see the role of a central site as an aggregator (acting as a shopping mall if you will for each subsite), but it’s important to me (and the clients) that theyÂ are also accessible as individual shops in their own right. The idea of the single codebase/install is that it cuts down dramitically on support effort, and therefore costs. It also means I could get a dedicated server for all subdomains and just do the whole hosting thing simply, instead of having to setup seperate hosting contracts for each client.
UnfortunatlyÂ this concept seems to remain elusve to me, asÂ distant as the Holy Grail if you will. It makes perfect sense to me that such a product/solution should exist; indeed many of theÂ Opensource communities seem toÂ be actively working on such ideas and directions, but no one has yet managed to get it working as far as I canÂ see. PleaseÂ feel free to correct me if I’mÂ wrong. Honestly – I’d love to be proved wrong on this one. If my analysis or conclusions are off then let me know, and certainly if you know of any Opensource solution out there that can do what I’m trying to – then get in touch and put me straight. I’ll be forever grateful if you do.
SoÂ which products have I considered? And further, why have they not met the requirements? Well – if you’re interested in Opensource solutions and you’ve been thinking along the same lines as me then read on. Perhaps I can save you some time and frustration…
I started off by evaluating my favourite blog engine (WordPress), and in particular it’s multi user offspring WordPressMU (or WPMU as it’s known). I figured that a multi user blogging engine with the capability to create thousands of subsites would be a good place to start, and then to slap in some e-commerce plugins with a multi-user capability seemed the next logical step. Logical, but not possible I’m afraid (at least it seems so to me). There is an e-commerce plugin (known as WP-Ecommerce) but it doesn’t seem to play nice with WPMU without lots of help.
The problem is that the WPMU product and community is small, and in desperate need of resources. It seems to me to be a small team of dedicated developers who are struggling to put some momentum into the product. There are are lot of bugs outstanding, the development seems to be slow (or stalled) and there is a distinct lack of documentation and support for themes/plugins and resources in general. The base product is there right enough, and it works – but not without a lot of intervention and fucking around in the code.
The thing is I really love WordPress (I’ve been using it for 2 years here at Howl @ The Moon!) and I had high hopes for WPMU – but it just doesn’t seem stable enough yet, and certainly not mature enoug in terms of the themes and plugins available for it. There doesn’t seem to be the massive following for this product in the same way there is for it’s predecessor, which is a shame. A real shame.
Next I turned my attention away from Blog/CMS/Portal solutions and on to shopping systems. First out of the traps was OSCommerce – a very robust product in it’s own right, but still lacking the elusive multi-site, multi-shop functionality. In the last 12 – 18 months a new version of OSCommerce has been in the works (V3) and I did manage to find references to both a shopping mall version (OSCMall) and an extension (OSCommerce Multi Site) – but neither of them were realistic yet. The OSCMall seems to have been a nice development project for someone at some point, but now seems to be defunct. The Multi Site extension isn’t quite fully implemented yet, and still depends on some hacking/coding at the database end just to get it working in its current form.
My key requirement which nothing in the OSCommerce world seems to be able to meet is the ability for individual vendors to maintain control over their own content/data/prices/configurations. Maybe someone will crack this for OSCommerce – I really hope they do because on it’s own it’s a great shopping cart system – but thus far I don’t see any evidence of it working for multi-vendor, multi-site. I installed the base code and dropped in the multi site extension on top of it, but the configuration required after that became silly (requiing manual hacks in the database)… so I dropped it right there as being something still a bit away from being production ready.
Another shopping cart solution; I spent many a fruitless night searching forums and reading posts and websites about the elusive multi site and vendor options for this product, but most of what I read suggests that like OSCommerce, Zen Cart developers and communities are still at the infancy stage of developing anything useful in this area. It is listed as a future functionality point in the core roadmap – but it looks like being somewhere between 12 to 24 months away if the development cycle and release times are anything to go by.
Like OSCommerce, Zen Cart is easy to install – but there doesn’t seem to be the urgency associated with this product that there is for OSCommerce from a resource perspective; there seems to be many more extensions and modules available for OSCommerce, and more interest in taking the product further. This however is a subjective view based on the last two weeks of effort on my part, so (as previously stated) I’m happy to be corrected.
Â Joomla / Mambo & VirtueCart
I then turned my attention to the CMS/Portal solutions and evaluated the offerings in the Joomla and Mamboserver space.Â Of the two products Joomla seems to have the most vibrant community and healthy release schedule. Currently close to releasing it’s greatly anticipated V1.5 release (now on beta 2) Joomla looks to be the slicker product of the two at the moment. I came across an extension for Joomla/Mambo known as VirtueCart which is also heading in the right direction (multi site, multi vendor)… but alas like so many other extensions is not quite there yet.
I tried accessing the latest build of Joomla/VirtueCart (known as the Joomla E-Commerce Build) but for some reason the downloads didn’t work; some sort of restricted access at the site error from what I could see. I hunted around for alternatives but eventually gave it up and moved on to the next item. From what I’ve read (but have not tested with these products) the situation is the same here – some folks are working towards the multi-site solution but no one has done it yet successfully within the Joomla/Mambo community.
Â PHP Multi-Shop
As with so many projects on Sourceforge and Freshmeat, Php Multi-Shop seems to have kicked off with a bang, and then whimpered out over the long term. There doesn’t seem to be any activity on this project at all these days, possibly becase it came into competition with the straight forward e-commerce options like ZenCart and OSCommerce – and lost out to better functionality, bigger communities and development teams and more widespread appeal as a result.
Of course I tried to contact the developers – as I did with all of the above products – but didn’t get any response at all. Another dead end so, unfortunately.
So where does this leave me then? Nowhere actually, from an Opensource perspective anyway. Thus far the Holy Grail of multi site / multi vendor shopping seems well out of reach for me, possibly for another year. Which is a real shame because I’ve become a great fan of Opensource and the driven and enthusiastic development communities behind it.
There are other products out there which claim to do the job (e.g. X-Cart), however they cost money and I can’t even get a trial version of these products without paying for them (I’ve tried but most trial versions don’t include the multi-site options). I’m not quite ready yet to throw in the towel and pay for a full solution; I’ll keep searching for an Opensource alternative… but I’m also going to ask you for help too.
Does anyone out there know of a proper opensource multi-site, multi-vendor e-commerce solution that I can use?
If you do – please put me out of my misery and get in touch with some details. Thanks.