Movers and Shakers: How Bekins built a Web services-based Broadcast Exchange system

Everyone is talking about Web services, but take it from Randy Mowen, lead solutions architect for an award-winning, cost-saving application of the new technology, it takes careful planning to do it right.

Mowen and his team designed and completed a Web services app for The Bekins Company, a San Clemente, Calif.-based moving business, in five months. More than two of those months were focused on planning and learning to use the tools, as well as on how to apply them to the Web services model.

'I think what we learned,' he said, is that 'it's very important that you work as a team; you [need to] have a good plan and a good model for how you are going to create your objects.'

The app, called Tonnage Broadcast Exchange (TBE) -- which won an honorable mention in ADT's Innovator Awards (see 'Web services keep Bekins Co. moving ,' April 2002) -- was designed to reduce duplication of effort. The online brokerage available to Bekins' business partners as a Web service replaced a system based on phone and fax technology.

However, Mowen, who is director of data management and e-business architecture at Bekins, said it was crucial that his development team avoid the pitfall of creating a Web service that mimicked rather than solved the problem.

'You can put yourself in the same situation you're trying to get out of,' he explained. 'That's duplicating objects, work, methods and calls, and [then] disseminating the information again.'

To avoid this, the seven-member team spent the initial phase of the project planning, architecting and studying how to use the new XML technologies to link data from a legacy IBM OS/390 mainframe system to the new Web services app.

'The first couple of months were [spent on] architecture and getting everybody comfortable with the components and building a foundation,' Mowen said. 'Before we could build anything tangible, we had to understand how all the components worked, how to parse the XML, how the different methods were going to call and talk to each other, [and] how the SOAP agent was going to work.'

The project's schedule allowed two months for learning to work with the XML technologies. This included some programming so the development team could learn the ins and outs of the platform and tools, which included IBM WebSphere Application Server 4.0, as well as VisualAge for Java 4.0, Rational Rose and ERwin. This stage was followed by four weeks of planning. The final two months were spent on programming and testing.

Mowen said front-loading the project with time to learn, plan and model paid off in the short coding time. 'The app came together in the six-week window we had planned for it once [the team was] comfortable with the new IDE and the whole way of deploying Web services,' he said.

The programming stage was also more productive because the business objects had been defined in the prior phases of the project; where the team found existing objects -- there were only a few, according to Mowen -- they were used in the new project. Modeling, data mapping, data conversion and then creating the objects were key to the application's success, he said. With the objects defined and reusable, the duplication of data and effort from the old system was eliminated.

Mowen offered the example of an order, which in the past might have come to Bekins as a fax and then been entered into systems in various ways that could be time-consuming to process or look up.

'It used to be that it wasn't really an object, it was an order,' he said. 'And an order was made up of specific data elements. Now it truly is an object as defined in Java. When an order comes in, we know that to submit it we call this object, send the data that comes in to this object, or we call this object if we want to look up an order.'

Building on this project's success, Mowen is focusing on employing his team's Web services expertise on integrating internal systems.

'We're going to start using the Web services model as an integration tool for the next six months to help us integrate all the segregated platforms and apps we currently run in-house,' he said. 'There are a lot of things that don't talk to each other right now -- they give us different data types when we run queries, prepare reports or do our daily business.'

Using Java and Web services, Mowen plans to standardize methods for inputs and outputs, consolidating them across Bekins' apps. 'When we need to extract or input data, it [will] all come through the same funnel, so our programmers will all be operating on the same page,' he said. 'We'll have a standardized set of input parameters that are well defined so we can quickly integrate with our vendors, customers, clients and agents.'

Bekins estimates that the productivity gains from working with this object model are resulting in an 'annual financial benefit' of $76 million.

'We put a great deal of focus on this project,' Mowen concluded, 'and we are starting to reap the rewards from it.'

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.


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