Getting More Than You Paid For: Working with osCommerce's Open Source Storefront

It's open source, it's expandable, and it's free. Is it right for you? We put osCommerce through its paces to see whether a freely downloadable shopping cart is truly a bargain. recently took at look at osCommerce, the free, open-source e-commerce storefront. On its cover, the concept looks too good to be true: a full-featured online sales and payment engine available at no cost. We put the software through its paces, evaluating it for both the technically inclined and the non-technical entrepreneur -- and found that "free" doesn't always mean a bargain.

For one thing, there are the usual issues that arise in installing new software. Sometimes, software is good to go right out the box, but other times, it requires a lot of effort to make it work. Setting up a reasonable e-commerce storefront with the open-source tool osCommerce fits somewhere in between those two extremes -- it's not a shrink-wrapped application for those that need to be spoon-fed, and on the other hand, its not as difficult as rolling your own from scratch.

Getting osCommerce
OsCommerce is an open-source application licensed under the GPL and is available for free (without warrantee) online. Like many projects in the open-source world, there are a number of ways of obtaining the software. For production use (and for the purpose of this review) I'd recommend the latest milestone release, osCommerce 2.2 milestone 2. It can be obtained via direct download either though its SourceForge page or the osCommerce Web site either for Windows or Linux servers.

That latest milestone was released in 2003 -- which in development terms is a long time ago -- but for average users, it represents the most stable, bona fide osCommerce release available. (Tech-savvy or merely daring e-commerce developers may prefer the additional features of the 'bleeding edge' osCommerce release, so a CVS snapshot is available -- though be warned that the code literally changes on a daily basis, and by definition is not always stable.)

According to its meager documentation, osCommerce will work on any machine that can run PHP (4.x+) and has access to a MySQL database (3.x+). In my experience with osCommerce, what that really means is a typical LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/ PHP) setup.

Certainly it's possible to try and run osCommerce on a WAMP (Windows/Apache/MySQL) or even a WIMP (Windows/IIS/ MySQL/PHP) though given the low cost of a basic Linux server I'm not sure that it's worth the trouble.

Important: Before you bother trying to install osCommerce, make sure you having a working PHP/MySQL setup with your Web server and OS of choice -- it'll be a real short and frustrating trip otherwise. If you're using a Web hosting provider, it's likely that PHP and MySQL are installed, but ask your support rep if you're unsure.

Once you've downloaded either the tarball or zipfile, it's a simple matter of unzipping/unpacking using whatever means you normally use (on Windows, Winzip is common; on Linux a simple : tar xvf : should do the trick). From there, copy the 'catalog' directory to the location on the Web server from which you plan to host your storefront.

You'll also need to create an empty database on your MySQL server and take note of the username password for the database as well as its proper address and location. (Your hosting admin might be able to assist with this, but in many cases, hosts provide a do-it-yourself Web interface to create new databases.)

The technical complexity generally ends there. The install script for osCommerce (located at http://[your site]/catalog/install) then guides you through the rest of the basic installation, asking about the database name, username and password that you've created to complete the setup and populate the database.

After successful installation, you end up looking at a somewhat overwhelming main Admin Tool screen listing the myriad features that osCommerce offers.

The first step you should probably take is to go into the "Configuration" menu and start going through each of the submenu items, one by one. This will let you tweak the settings of your store, while gaining a better understanding of its capabilities. Some of the items you'll easily be able to decipher and adjust if necessary, while others you'll leave the same.

The osCommerce main menu

There also will be a few configuration options that you won't know what to do with until after you've gone already through the whole process at least once and learned a bit more about the system.

Here is where a walkthrough tutorial for newbies would have been useful. But osCommerce doesn't provide such a thing, so trial and inevitable error during setup is the rule of the day. Don't worry too much, though -- each of the options does have an "Info" button that provides some information.

For the most part, the default settings are a good start, but it's still good to check it out as part of your initial familiarization process with the application.

The basic store information (such as your store's name) is configured under the "My Store" tab. The Minimum and Maximum values tabs enable you to set (not surprisingly) the minimum / maximum values displayed in various dialog boxes that may setup through out the site.

Under the "Download" tab, the program offers the option of selling your wares via downloading. So if you're offering online software, documents, and the like, that's one option you need to enable. The default settings also have GZIP compression disabled by default, as it does make the site behave faster in most instances.

Users also will want to take a look at their system's payment module settings. By default, the installation allows for credit cards and cash, and cash on delivery -- which may not be appropriate for all users. A module enabling users to accept PayPal is not activated by default, although I suspect many users will definitely want to have it active and working.

Installing the PayPal module is quite simple -- just click "Install" and edit system information as required. Unless you live in Florida, you'll also have to add in your own particular area's tax information.

Most importantly, be certain to turn on SSL Encryption -- this provides a measure of protection against malicious hackers from viewing sensitive financial information as it's passed through your system.

Building your Catalog
With the basic configuration done for the present, it's time for you to populate your product catalog. This is where it gets a bit more tedious. Adding product categories is a simple point-and-click affair of categories and then products for those categories.

osCommerce ships with a demonstration computer electronics store -- unfortunately, unless that also happens to be your business, you'll first have to clean out that content to be able to add your own.

Configuring your product catalog

Continued on Page Two: Adding products -- and coping with shortcomings.

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