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THE ACTIVE CATALOGUE ENGINE TECHNOLOGY BRIEFING

Overview
The Active Catalogue Engine (ACE) is a developer technology for building interactive, database enabled web sites for commerce. Using the ACE, developers can build dynamic web based product catalogues. Combined with the Active Shopping Cart, developers can build complete, interactive commerce sites on the Internet.

Along with providing developers the ability to create on-line catalogues, the ACE allows for maintaining the underlying data through a web interface. The data in the database, which drives the dynamic contents of the catalogue, can be maintained by the owner of the site through a browser interface on the Internet. This allows for remote administration of the contents of the database. The catalogue data is itself broken up into categories and items, much the same way as a standard paper-based catalogue works today. The ACE also provides the capability to "bundle" multiple products together for sale as a package.

ACE opens up an opportunity for database catalogue "providers" who can offer such catalogue services to clients who want web based "storefronts". Storefront providers can limit the number of items that a given catalogue may contain, thus allowing flexible pricing schedules and "packages".

Technology
The ASC is based on the Microsoft ActiveX Component Object Model (COM). ActiveX components are server, not client centric. This allows for faster access by the client, as there is no need to download any additional software. This is not to be confused with ActiveX controls, which are downloaded to the client. Instead, these components are located and manipulated on the server using Microsoft’s Active Server Pages.

Server based ActiveX components interact with the catalogue database. The catalogue database is implemented using a Client/Server database such as Microsoft SQL Server, Sybase, or Oracle. The catalogue engine uses Microsoft’s ODBC and OLE-DB technologies to access the databases. This provides the capability of supporting multiple database types, including ISAM database formats such as dBase and Microsoft Access. However, it is highly recommended that a true Client/Server database be used! Most ISAM drivers do not support multi-threading, resulting in lost performance and in some cases, web server crashes. The structure of the database is predefined, but flexible enough to support custom functionality as required by the developer.

The second technology required is Microsoft’s Active Server Pages. Active Server Pages (ASP) is Microsoft’s server side scripting technology, which replaces standard CGI-programming. ASP’s generate dynamic content, which can be returned to the client as pure HTML. ASP’s have the ability to communicate the Active Catalogue Engine, thus providing complete flexibility in the way the ACE is used and the catalogue is presented to the consumer.

Development
The Active Catalogue Engine objects are COM (ActiveX) components (objects) that reside on Windows NT Server. The same NT Server will also be running Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) and the Microsoft Active Server Pages engine.

The Active Catalogue Engine objects are implemented in Microsoft Visual C++ 5.0 using Microsoft’s Active Template Library (ATL). These COM objects can then be instantiated and manipulated by Visual Basic Script code, which is embedded in the Active Server Pages (ASP’s). These pages are requested by the browser via a URL.

Active Server Pages are a combination of VBScript or JavaScript and HTML. Both VB and JavaScript are very "thin" languages in that they do not have much functionality built in to them. However, they have the ability to dynamically create and manipulate server side COM objects as well as several built in COM objects, which are maintained by the Active Server Pages engine. Since the catalogue engine is implemented as a set of COM components (objects), the scripting languages can query the catalogue and display the contents of the data as pure HTML (including images) to the client.

The advantages of this approach are many. To the consumers (those that visit the site), the data access is transparent. All requests are made via URL from the client to the server. The server on the other hand has code, which is executed to satisfy the requests of the user. In other words, the browser talks to the web server through URL requests. The web server acts on those requests, and returns pure HTML to the client. This opens the web site up to any number of browser and computer types, including Windows 3.x, Windows 95, Apple Macintosh, and all flavors of Unix.


The Active Catalogue Engine is based on solid object oriented design principals and ActiveX. The objects are implemented as "recordsets" of data, which can be navigated easily to retrieve and display the data in the database.

As you can see, the Active Catalogue Engine is a very flexible, yet powerful technology for creating robust on-line catalogues. It is based on solid technology provided by Microsoft, the world leader in software development.

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