Getting started on Magento - the good the bad and the costly

Richard Aspden

Richard Aspden

5 Minute read April 2021

About Magento:

Magento is the #1 platform for B2B merchants, in fact, it has held the #1 spot on ‘the internet retailer’ top 1000 list 4 years running yet Magento. However many merchants are still hesitant to adopt Magento due to its complexity. Magento comes in two versions, open-source or enterprise, both coming with their benefits and drawbacks. Is your business best suited to cheap and flexible, yet requires development, or the a costly enterprise solution that comes with a faster route to selling.

Open source v enterprise Magento:

Here is a brief overview of what to expect between the two offered:

  • The basic version of Magento is free out of the box.
  • The paid-for version of Magento (Magento Commerce) has a high cost assigned to it and comes in two versions – a SaaS version and an installable version. Adobe pushes their enterprise version fairly hard, as you’d expect.
  • Extension licenses for Magento Commerce are usually double the price of the Open Source version 
  • Magento Commerce also comes with added functionality to start with, such as gift cards, enterprise reports, etc, desired by larger corporate firms. All of which is obtainable from open source but will require development. 

Conversely, many extensions can be installed to add the missing functionality to the Open Source edition, with varying levels of quality, similar to the range from IKEA flat pack wardrobes to handmade solid oak furniture; both can fulfill the desired outcome but one might take longer to set up and may not last as long before it needs refurbishment.  

We don’t recommend trying to get Magento up and running on a shared server platform, the results are rarely satisfactory (usually moderately slow), and if there are any configuration issues caused by the hosting provider, it could theoretically result in your data being compromised, which is a GDPR nightmare waiting to happen!

Integrating with Magento

The base install of Magento expects to be the authoritative source of data on all transactions, therefore it doesn’t integrate natively with other platforms. If all you’re looking to do is sell online, it’ll work adequately as soon as you set up your products and payment providers in the admin. If you’re looking for anything that’s not included with the base install, you’re looking at custom development, the Magento Marketplace, or finding and integrating solutions yourself if you have the developer expertise. 

Integrating Magento with your internal systems may well require some work. At first, you may be happy with receiving emails from the Magento system to inform you that you’ve had an order and it’s been paid for, so you can key the order in manually to your existing system. Reasonable enough when you’re getting started for small volumes, but the more orders you take, the higher the chance of incurring human error, and the more internal resources it will take to keep up with the order flow.

Automating Magento

Once the website is established, you may rapidly find you need to automate the ordering process to integrate directly with your internal systems, automatically creating the orders for you with the rules and configuration you already have set up, to remove the human element and save long-term costs, though it will require some initial time investment and suitable extensions added to your Magento install. Sometimes it will require changes to your internal system to integrate properly with your new online presence, which may require assistance from in-house or external developers, or direct support and assistance from your software vendor, e.g. an SAP consultant or a Microsoft Navision developer.

Adding extensions:

The amount of time it can take to install and configure the extensions to your business processes can’t be ignored, and there will be a cost to it, either internally or externally, and a balance needs to be struck between purchasing off-the-shelf modules (which you may still have to customise to your needs) and bespoke development. The former has the advantage of being supported for a reasonable amount of time after purchase.

Optimising Magento 

Configuring Magento to run fast and efficiently is somewhat of an art in itself. Whilst over the years the built-in methods to increase the speed of the shops has hugely improved, it requires time spent to get the configuration right for your exact needs – how much traffic it is expected to handle, how many products are on the site, how many websites will be handled on the individual server; this often needs hand-tuning to get right.

Often the caching system will need to be tweaked to allow for custom designs that have dynamic content per user for example. It’s also fairly heavy on server resources – it likes plenty of RAM, especially with new versions of Magento being reliant on ElasticSearch – and it can be fairly heavy on the file system, so you want at least SSD-backed server(s). As you scale upwards, you may end up having multiple servers running the different components such as the database, and the search engine.

Upgrading and updates:

Over time, Magento upgrades are released – usually bug fixes and security patches for minor version upgrades, and occasionally there is a new major release (such as the 2.4.x versions), both of which can break extension compatibility with the previous version.

Providing you have a current support contract for any extensions you have purchased – which is well worth having and can usually be renewed periodically. You will be entitled to the latest version of the module. The major vendors on the marketplace are quite good at updating their modules, but sometimes you will find a module you rely on has been discontinued, at which point you’ll either have to have a developer update the module to be compatible or find a replacement that also meets your requirements. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the Marketplace – sometimes companies no longer support their modules after a major upgrade. Any customisation to those modules that you may have had performed for you may also need migrating manually by a developer. However, the advantages of the upgrade can often outweigh the costs, depending on whether new features that have been added to the newer versions are needed for your company’s site.

It’s important to budget for supporting the site after launch, and at the bare minimum ensuring the latest security patches are installed on your site when they’re released, as you may be leaving yourself wide open to your site being compromised by unscrupulous opportunists.

Migrating to Magento:

You will likely have to adapt your product data to fit your new system if you’re synchronising it from an internal system. We have got a whole section dedicated to this on our blog – please take a look before you deploy, it may save you some money and heartache.

Not strictly related to the Magento install itself, but if you’re replacing an existing website, you may lose rankings on your pages unless you correctly redirect the old pages to the new ones, and the new ones should contain as much of the old content as possible if they’re highly ranked on search engines. We’ve had stories of huge traffic drops to newly deployed sites because the product data wasn’t adequate, and they had years of hand-curated content which was lost in the move. However you migrate the data, you are likely to at least temporarily lose some of those keyword rankings, expect a potential initial traffic hit which may need to be combated with a suitable marketing strategy around the new website.

Preparation is key:

Our final word of advice, and probably most importantly, would be to make sure you know what you want before you engage in the Magento customisation and deployment process. By all means, have someone do a sample site for you to look at, or look at example Magento installations, and make a note of all the features you think you may need that are present. Any features you think you need that you can’t see how to do (which may be there but non-obvious, or absent from the base install), consider your internal business processes and how it will work with the new Magento system. Revising the specifications of a system after the initial specification will incur additional costs, because it’s likely to have a knock-on effect on other work/development that needs to be done, and you may also need to provide additional data to make it work. 

What appears to be trivial will often involve much more time than you expect, and could result in an unexpected bill if it’s not correctly planned. Sometimes changes partway through a project are unavoidable, but doing so will incur higher costs than building it into the original specifications, potentially by an unexpected magnitude, as it may involve going back and re-engineering some of the foundations of your setup. 

It is usually easier to alter the visual display than the functionality, but ensure you have clear communication and understanding with any agencies you are working with, and what is covered as part of the initial build and what isn’t, because it’s one of the biggest issues that cause the relationship between client and their agency to break down and as a result causing your expensive but necessary projects to fail.

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