In a short series of articles, I will explore the Past, Present, and Future of the ATG Oracle Commerce platform. I will also provide insights for companies using the Oracle Commerce platform.
Oracle Commerce, previously ATG, is without question one of the leading Enterprise eCommerce platforms. For over 22 years it has been a top choice for the world’s largest retailers. From a ground breaking pioneer in the very beginnings of eCommerce, to a mature battle tested platform used by hundreds of massive companies, the ATG Oracle Commerce product has gone on a two decade journey of success. Let’s take a look at the origins of the platform, its evolution, and how it came to dominate the enterprise eCommerce market.
The Origin of the ATG eCommerce Platform
ATG, or Art Technology Group, was founded in 1991 by Joe Chung and Jeet Singh, with its roots in the famed MIT Media Lab. For the first several years, the company provided a wide range of consulting and development services. They helped world renowned ad agency Chiat/Day communicate by building a revolutionary “groupware” system called Oxygen back in 1994. ATG built the technology that allowed MovieFone to become the leading provider of theatre schedules and ticket sales. They built art installations. The team was truly focused on Art and Technology.
Around 1996-1997 ATG began to focus on productizing some of the technology IP they had developed. Called Dynamo, they created an early application server, and eventually added personalization, commerce, and an advertising platform to the stack. The Dynamo platform was originally a C++ based system, but was re-written in Java for the Dynamo 3.0 release. This was a very risky and bold move at the time, as Java was brand new.
At the time, very little in the way of standards or libraries existed for this type of work. So ATG had to invent a great deal of complex technology that today we simply take for granted. There were no application servers, like JBoss, or WebLogic, so ATG built Dynamo. There was no dynamic page templating system, so ATG developed JHTML, which years later provided much of the ground work for the JSP specification. ORM (Object-Relational Mapping) tools like Hibernate didn’t exist, so ATG created their Repository technology.
They quite literally created an amazing set of technologies to solve complex problems in the Enterprise and eCommerce spaces: JHTML, Nucleus, Dynamo, Repositories, Scenarios, and so much more. Not only were these trailblazing solutions at the time, but in most cases they were arguably better designed and built than many technologies that came years later. Even today, using Spring, Hibernate, Ruby on Rails, and other best of breed modern technologies, I often find myself missing features or elegance from 20 year old ATG technologies.
As an aside I want to thank Joe C., Jeff V., Nate A., Matt S., Tareef K., Joe B., Joe V., Bob M., and many others for providing so much inspiration for what a small and very talented team can build.
What Made the ATG eCommerce Platform the Best
The ATG eCommerce platform competed against both new entrants like BroadVisionand Blue Martini, but also against giants like IBM WebSphere Commerce and BEA WebLogic Commerce. ATG’s success was, in my opinion, strongly rooted in its superior technology. ATG was very scalable, both horizontally as well as vertically.
The custom load balancing system, in the early days, was not only extremely efficient, but also supported various intelligent load distribution algorithms, and features like session bleed-off, allowing for essentially zero-impact rolling deployments and restarts.
ATG’s session backup technology was more efficient than most other platforms at the time, by using paired (typically) servers instead of an “everyone backs up everywhere” approach.
ATG’s core technologies, from session management, to user profiles, to caching systems, data access layers, etc.. were all very well designed and scaled quite well under high load and large data sets. This allowed the commerce features built on top of them, to also scale and perform well.
Catalogs with millions or tens of millions of SKUs worked smoothly. Sites with tens of millions of user profiles performed well. eCommerce storefronts could handle thousands of requests per second and hundreds of orders per second during sales or Black Friday/Cyber Monday events. Not everything was perfect of course, but on the whole, the platform worked extremely efficiently for large businesses with lots of data and high traffic.
The eCommerce features were generally well thought out, and geared for the needs of enterprise retailers. Price lists, strong B2B functionality, pipelines for processing orders (and other things), inventory and thresholds, a catalog model that worked for simple cases but could handle some of the most complex data relationships I’ve ever seen. A content and catalog management system with workflows, approvals, and versioning. An out of the box customer service application. Etc..
Not everyone needs those features, but if you need them, you need them. Honestly, I’ve been frustrated more times than I can count by the lack of support for so-called “enterprise” features in modern SMB eCommerce platforms even when working with the smallest clients with simple needs.
The platform was also built to integrate well with 3rd party systems including custom internal systems. And the development model allowed for powerful customizations and easy override and extending built in functionality. ATG was extremely configurable and customizable. Its development model required some familiarization and training, but a skilled ATG development team could make the platform do just about anything.
ATG wasn’t perfect, as with any platform there are flaws and weak areas. But on the whole I think it was clearly one of, if not, the best eCommerce solutions for large companies. Of those early large enterprises focused players, most are long dead and gone, or at least diminished into irrelevance. Even WebSphere Commerce was sold by IBM to HCL, and Oracle had already bought BEA WebLogic including their commerce platform, but still bought ATG two years later and ATG has become Oracle Commerce. I think it’s fair to say that ATG has emerged as the dominant eCommerce platform of that generation of solutions.