AS/400 helps users move into the Web age

The HMV Media Group was a natural pioneer of internet-based trading with its customers. It is the largest specialist music...

The HMV Media Group was a natural pioneer of internet-based trading with its customers. It is the largest specialist music retailer in the world, with 278 HMV stores, and is also the largest specialist book retailer in the UK, with 206 shops, most of which are Waterstones. Group turnover was £1.3bn in the last financial year

HMV needed to respond to competition from the new breed of dotcom companies, such as Amazon, but also had reasons of its own for offering web based ordering. Many of its smaller stores can only offer a limited range of music for space reasons. With the internet, as business technology director Duncan Bell says, "you can offer a very wide range of products to anyone, without a very large high street presence".

There is also, as with most e-businesses, the opportunity to reach a wider range of customers. And internet based ordering allows HMV to learn more about its customers' views. "This is very important, and it is a great advantage for HMV," says Bell, adding that "it helps us understand their requirements and expectations, and therefore shape our future strategy."

HMV is a long-standing AS/400 user, using the platform for business-critical applications, including stock management, catalogue management, and all the financial applications. The company wanted to continue using its existing technology and expertise, and avoid the expense of rewriting its back office systems.

HMV, therefore, teamed up with an IBM business partner, Apex Computers. The two jointly developed the required e-business applications using IBM's Java and WebSphere software. All the HMV stores are now linked to their country's head office via an AS/400 using JDA software, and soon each book store will also be equipped with an AS/400.

Another household name which uses AS/400 servers is mobile phone company One 2 One. It operates in a highly competitive market; its major competitors including BT Cellnet, Orange, and Vodafone. Competition is so fierce that a phone that cost £300 five years ago sells for £20 today.

Business efficiency is therefore paramount. "It costs several hundred pounds in sales and marketing to attract a new customer", says distribution and projects manager Richard Copeland. "If we lose that customer to the competition, all we are left with is a second hand phone of little or no value."

One of the company's current major objectives is to reduce the turnaround time from when a phone is ordered, to when it is delivered. Currently that is five days; the aim is to reduce it to two.

One way to achieve this is to speed up the sales order process for its dealers. Accordingly, One 2 One implemented a web based ordering and tracking service for its dealers last year.

This is designed to achieve several objectives. "What we wanted was to move towards a 22 hours a day ordering and fulfilment model,' says Annu Uberoi, project manager for the new system. 'Just because orders could not be taken at weekends shouldn't mean that dealers have to wait for Monday morning to place those orders."

A second objective was to reduce the number of orders taken manually, both to speed up the process, and to reduce the risk of error. "We're aiming to reduce manual orders from 50 per cent to 30 per cent", says Uberoi.

One 2 One, like HMV, wanted to build on what it had got, rather than embrace new technologies. One 2 One was a user of JBA's System 21 ERP software, and JBA had already developed e-commerce software that met One 2 One's need, and could easily be integrated with System 21.

Implementation began early in 1999, and was tested via a pilot study of eight dealer groups. This took just 12 weeks to set up, and produced a favourable response. Accordingly, One 2 One decided to roll out the system in phases to all its dealer groups, a process which was completed at the end of last year.

Richard Copeland is now expecting electronic ordering to grow very rapidly until it reaches a level of two thirds of all orders.

Financial investment companies can also see benefits in adding e-commerce to their existing trading outlets. Perpetual Investment Management Services of Henley has implemented an e-commerce application which allows customers to make investments in ISAs, as well as reviewing the value of all their investments at any time. This is a first step towards full deployment of all their existing transaction processing systems over the internet.

Perpetual was founded in 1974, and like HMV and One 2 One is a long-term AS/400 user, with 800 users accessing its high availability system at the company's Henley headquarters. Now, according to IT director Geoff Probert, "we have transformed our traditional AS/400 systems with a new web interface, leveraging the skills and technologies that have proved so successful for us in the past".

He continues: "Deploying this technology allows us to massively increase our capacity for new business at seasonal peaks, while improving the service to the customers."

Perpetual implemented its system in conjunction with Catalyst Solutions. An interesting feature is that Perpetual's existing web site was on an RS/6000: as part of the new e-commerce solution it has been moved to an AS/400 running Domino Version 5. IBM Net.Data is used in conjunction with Domino to support the integration with the back office systems.

HMV, One 2 One, and Perpetual have all made the transition to e-commerce using existing IBM software in conjunction with IBM AS/400 specialist companies. IBM itself is keen to promote the possibilities of the AS/400 for e-commerce. A year ago it web enabled DB2, allowing data managed by it to be accessible via web browsers, and so paving the way for AS/400 applications to be made available over the web, without application conversion.

This enabling feature was introduced with V4R4 of OS/400. IBM has recently made a number of new announcements that build on this.

Most of the attention in the press was captured by the May announcement of a new range of top-end servers. These are the first products to feature silicon-on-insulator technology, as well as copper based interconnects, in a new PowerPC processor called IStar. This has enabled a 3.6-fold increase in performance of the largest model, the 24-way model 840.

The announcement also contained a couple of features designed specifically to improve e-commerce capability and performance. The new servers support XML (Extensible Markup Language), which allows extension of AS/400 applications to pervasive computing devices, such as mobile phones and palmtops.

IBM has also improved the performance of AS/400 Java, claiming a 65 per cent improvement. The company followed this up by announcing a new throughput record using the Volanomark Java server benchmark, of over 100,000 messages a second using 200 concurrent connections.

A few days after this announcement, IBM introduced new e-commerce software for the AS/400. Known by the unwieldy title of WebSphere Commerce Suite Pro Edition for AS/400 Version 4.1, it is an integrated solution providing functionality for content management, relationship marketing, order management, and payment functions. It is designed to allow you to create e-marketplaces, or to participate in existing ones, rapidly.

Capabilities include personalisation, merchandising, business analysis and reporting, order management, and integration with existing systems.

The significance of this product, according to Catalyst's Group head of technology strategy Ben Schofield, is that "web-based applications are much easier to build. You can access the AS/400 from any browser anywhere".

WebSphere Commerce Suite, which in its earlier incarnations was known as Net.Commerce Pro, is available stand alone, or as part of WebSphere Application Server Advanced Edition Version 3.0.2, and WebSphere Payment Manager Version 2.1.

The latter product was itself introduced only a few weeks before. It offers payment hosting capabilities for ISVs who want to begin renting applications over the internet.

For the future, IBM is planning to go further still. The idea is to map traditional AS/400 green screen applications written in RPG onto HTML, so that the user can simply throw a switch to present these applications to the web. Details of this development are scanty at present, and timescales unknown.

The advantage of it is that AS/400 users will not need to recruit staff with HTML expertise. The existing programs can be rewritten for more effective web presentation using existing RPG skills.

Network connectivity software company Hummingbird has also addressed this requirement with its e-Gateway product, launched in June. This allows legacy data existing on green screens to be published and viewed in customised graphical screens.

According to UK country manager Chris Roper: "Many companies have legacy systems; they're not going to throw them out. This allows them to web-enable legacy systems, without the need to reprogram, change their data, or rewrite their scripts".

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