Can the iSeries cut it as an e-commerce engine?

A number of UK companies have found that the robustness of iSeries servers makes them ideal engines for driving their e-commerce...

A number of UK companies have found that the robustness of iSeries servers makes them ideal engines for driving their e-commerce operations, writes Chris Youett.

In the short term, many companies are opting for the quick fix of developing e-commerce or Web pilots on Wintel kit and then duplicating the data when running it in production mode. But a growing community of both users and suppliers is starting to say this approach is short-sighted, and will rack up greater costs than rolling out integrated systems based on existing iSeries applications and data.

Terry Wilcox, managing director of UK supplier Deliver-e, says, "In the short term it is easy to deploy on Wintel and update it back to the real computer. But soon you get all the problems associated with duplicating data such as wrong credit status and stock balances.

"This is difficult to manage efficiently, and this is where the iSeries really scores. Once auditors start to cost out just how much firms out there are losing via spurious updates and files, I expect to see everyone moving back to their iSeries.

"There are also some good features on the system to help with e-business, such as interactive saves. This means the site then only has to do one big IPL [initial program load] save as part of its normal housekeeping."

iSeries ERP
One business to follow this route is printing equipment supplier Openshaw International, which has operations in the UK, Holland, France, Germany and the US, with a combined annual turnover of £70m. Openshaw uses iSeries enterprise resource planning application stalwart Geac Software's System 21 on an iSeries Model 620, with its Web site hosted at UUNet in Manchester connected to the Net via a 2Mbit pipe with a 256Kbyte connection into Openshaw's headquarters.

Deliver-e put its Web:Linc front-end and back-office integration kit into into the System 21 software on Openshaw's iSeries platform. Adam Buckley, group business systems manager at Openshaw, says this integration of Web and iSeries is proving extremely useful.

"The Web:Linc software requests price and product description information from System 21 and gives this to the end-user. If the customer wants, for example, their accounts history this can also be pulled off the iSeries," he explains. "They get exactly the same view as if they had rung up accounts with some queries. The main IPL save is done at 3am every Sunday, and most data is now captured once."

Buckley stresses that discipline is still a factor in this apparently open house. "We do not give generic access to anyone and generally produce their normal buying list. This means they do not have to consult catalogues. There are also business rules which sit between the iSeries and the Web site. This stops customers accidentally ordering 10,000 widgets," he says.

It is good to see an existing iSeries application proving to be a useful e-business engine. Another example, which exploits IBM's Websphere development environment, comes from address management specialist QAS, a veteran iSeries site - it currently hosts its world server on a Model 720.

A growing number of QAS customers want to quickly look up correct addresses online, prompting a new Websphere-based application project to fill the gap.

QAS' senior programmer Simon Henson says, "This will allow call centres, retailers with credit card enquiries and so forth to quickly compare the address given with the correct address. The new application supports green screens and combines the traditional strengths of the iSeries - high up-time, reliability and low cost of ownership - with e-business."

Wholesale giant the Consortium wanted to get some of its suppliers to deliver direct to the customer, so used the iSeries for an e-procurement operation.

The Consortium's supply chain director Mark Barnett explains that because the company had been using Electronic Data Interchange and was already using Geac's System 21 for internal fulfilment, most of the systems already fitted the e-business model.

"Currently more than 10% of our business comes in via the Web. This is fulfilled either from our own warehouse or, if cheaper or quicker, direct from a supplier," he says.

In this case, the secret of e-business success with the iSeries as the engine was the amount of attention that was paid to back-office processes. "Catalogue software from Pindar was the easy part. Creating an e-procurement system which worked closely with System 21 using XML was more challenging," says Barnett.

"We wanted to eliminate paperwork as far as possible as well as using browser technology to take the data along the supply chain and present it on a Web page."

Picking the right software tool for the job is clearly the key to any successful deployment of the iSeries into e-business.

Do not neglect replication
Users looking to use the iSeries in e-business operations should not neglect the issue of replication and how to most efficiently handle it. Adrian Handley, director of iSeries specialist Developer Solutions, says, "A lot of replication is used to back-up central systems. Some suppliers are plugging this approach because it means that any problems only hit the replicated systems at the e-business end, not the main iSeries. If you go down the replication road, it either costs a lot of money from IBM or 18 months' work internally.

"However, we see three other routes: one, use middleware which is ODBC, JDBC and OLEDB-compliant for connecting the back-office iSeries to your e-business. Two, use Microsoft SQL Server. You can host this under OS/400 using LPar. Three, use XML parsing to talk between two or more databases. The site only has to map the XML once between each database it wishes to support."

A word of warning
According to service management software house Hornbill, users need to be careful about how much code they download off their e-servers if they want to maintain good service levels.

Patrick Bulger, sales and marketing director at Hornbill, says, "Everyone is trying to jump onto the customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning bandwagons without looking at just how their software will affect both SME sites and their customers.

"It is no secret that major players like SAP are trying to move downmarket into the SME space, while others are trying to get in via Java. This is pointless if access means waiting for an 8Mbit Java applet just to log on. Smaller companies are already seeing that the dinosaurs are not going to rule the world any more and in the real world companies want very thin desktops.

"They need to look at interpreted code with 500Kbyte clients as well as technologies such as non-polling architecture on TCP/IP. They also know that HTML is difficult to develop into efficient front-ends, Java is not currently as stable as Wintel and all the iSeries legacy systems need to be e-enabled efficiently."

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