Automotive e-commerce is more than just building a nice web site and selling cars online. It's about managing entire information technology networks and strategies.

So being the e-commerce manager for Hendrick Automotive, one of the largest and most successful dealer groups, Matthew Belk has his hands full managing the various e-business components at all of Hendrick's 48 dealerships.

The Cobalt Group Inc., meanwhile, had spent 18 months developing software that would serve as its internal hosting platform. But in its conversations with dealers and OEM's, Cobalt quickly realized a need to transform the software from being an internal product to an application that could be used by manufacturers and dealers.

What Cobalt came up with is Nitra, a software platform that allows the dealer or OEM to integrate their various e-business components onto one network. For example, a dealer can take the applications from various sources such as manufacturers, third-party companies and advertising agencies, and integrate them onto the network into one manageable package.

The platform is based on Sun Microsystems J2EE technology (Java 2 Enterprise Edition). The technology powers many of the latest automotive e-business applications.

Nitra's architecture is that of a “Service Bus.” A bus is a programming interface that allows the various components to communicate with each other. Cobalt has divided Nitra's services into core and business.

The core services handle the infrastructure of the platform and establishes the functionality standards. The business services, meanwhile, include all of the services available to Nitra customers.

Right now, Nitra users have only two applications at their disposal. More are being developed, however, according to Cobalt President John Holt. “This is only phase one of our launch,” he explains.

The tools include Cobalt's Marketing Library Manager and Website Manager. The Marketing Library Manager allows dealers to access any number of multi-media assets, including pictures, logos, videos, audio or text from advertising agencies, OEMs and such.

Dealers can use the Website Manager to edit and publish real time - 24/7. Dealers can also establish various permission levels for staff members. Mr. Belk, for instance, requires the department managers of each dealership to be responsible for any modifications for their department section. However, only the dealership's Internet manager is able to actually publish the changes.

The Website Manager tools include:

  • Configuragation
  • Inventory management
  • Lead management
  • Traffic reporting
  • Asset library management
  • Website management
  • Logging.

Every time a component is added to the network, it is able to immediately use any of Nitra's core or business services. Before, a full set of standards had to be developed for each component before it could be placed on a network. Now, it is simply Plug and Play.

Says Mr. Belk, “Probably the best way to describe Nitra is that it's a modular tool.”

“Let's say Honda develops a vehicle configurator,” Mr. Belk explains. “It can put that configurator on the platform and my dealerships can use it on their web sites.”

Mr. Belk adds, “That the various components are able to communicate is important. As a practical example, my inventory section on the web site talks to the special section. So when a customer purchases a vehicle, and we remove it from the inventory list, it automatically gets removed from the special section.”

A dealer can take any of these components and seamlessly integrate them into the website. It allows for better customer interaction on the website and better data management.

As a result of being able to better manage the data, Mr. Belk has implemented a narrow e-mail campaign management for the dealer group. “We sell 100,000 cars a year and have one million repair orders. Now I can take all that data and use it to narrowly target our customers,” Mr. Belk explains.

Currently, the Nitra platform is available to participants in Cobalt's Early Adoptor program. A full-scale launch to the entire automotive industry is planned for next month at the NADA Convention. Usage will be subscription-based.

The investment level is significant, according to Mr. Belk.

“I had to sell this to Hendrick's owners,” he says. “But I looked at this way — we're not investing in a website company. Instead, we're investing in a technology platform that will probably be around for a long time.”