Things Remembered --Lessons learned
- By Jack Vaughan
ADT's 2003 Innovator Awards
E-Business Application Development Winner
|Risk wears at least two faces in high-technology projects. There is the risk of using new technology, and the risk of resting on your laurels.|
This equation played out in an ADT Innovator Award-winning application developed at Cole National, the parent company of Things Remembered Inc. Risk-takers there opted to explore Web services to gain important corporate goals. To improve their chances of success, they made sure to exploit long-running, in-house efforts that centered on the IBM MQ messaging middleware architecture.
A batch-mode processing method gathered orders from partners' Web sites at Things Remembered, a Highland Heights, Ohio-based company that operates a personalized gift store chain quite visible at malls nationwide. The batch system worked. But it also held out the potential hazard of inventory jeopardy.
(Along railing, from left) Ted Pshock, Mike Spirito, Greg Bobak, Wally Dal Pan, Mark Fodor, Craig Pasquale, Vijay Cilveru
(Against wall, from left) Ray Habel, Brian Kayla and Bob Gutbrod
To diminish that risk, Things Remembered and Cole National embraced a move to XML-based Web services. Batch processing was showing its age.
"Our goal was to introduce Web services to strategic partners, allow them to sell their products online, and -- no matter what operating system they were running -- send us orders in near real-time," explained Greg Bobak, project lead at Cole National.
Bobak's groups had used XML previously for some data transport tasks that moved bits from one system to another.
"We looked at Web services as an ideal candidate to begin to accept messages from everybody," he said.
The use of an Order Request Web service now allows partners to transmit purchase orders via SOAP. Partners can build messages themselves based on a WSDL description of the message, or they can use a proxy class provided by Things Remembered. The proxy, which will be made available with Java, COM and .NET interfaces, validates all the required input parameters and constructs for a well-formed cXML order request. (cXML, or XML for Commerce, is an open standard based on technology originally created by Ariba, Ariba users, Extricity Software, Vignette and others.) Things Remembered's Bobak said OASIS XML commerce standards are now under consideration as well.
The proxy subsequently serializes message data into SOAP packets, digitally signing the message and sending it to Things Remembered for processing.
The use of a Web services framework gives Cole the ability to extend its enterprise data and applications in a real-time fashion. It supports the company's EAI direction within the enterprise as well as in its retail chains, said Bobak.
The development team used IBM WebSphere tools and servers to build the application.
Bobak and team counted themselves well versed in IBM WebSphere MQ integration projects connecting apps and data sources to the company's central fulfillment module, and this experience influenced the direction of the application's development.
Ten professionals -- including two systems analysts, two integration leads, a project sponsor and lead, three programmers and one configuration lead -- took part.
"My role was not too extreme on this project," remarked Craig Pasquale, who served as system analyst, and is now a project manager.
"My role was to [facilitate] communications between all the groups. I previously worked with SOAP with third parties on B2B. Now, the process has expanded into something more generic and standard for everyone else to use," he said.
Bobak said that, from a technical point of view, SOAP lives up to its name: "It's simple." As he describes it, the Apache Axis SOAP framework takes SOAP and grows it, adding useful concepts of flow control.
Looking forward, management of Web services will be an issue for some, Bobak said.
"The challenge, if you are a big company that has 20 years of EDI, and you have a thousand partners and now use Web services, is that you can move so quickly [into Web services] that managing [everything] would become a challenge," he said.
Looking forward, what are the skills Bobak and company are looking for in developers and application managers? Java, XML and Axis, said Bobak.
So what is next? "This [project] opened up our ideas of how we communicate," said Bobak. That means internally and externally.
While Web services do appear malleable to integrating existing systems to new applications, a new approach to planning is in order. "When you design [applications]," said Bobak, "you do have to think of how, in the future, you will have it as a Web service."
Project: Order request Web service
Purpose: Before this project, Things Remembered's Web site processed its business partners' orders in batches throughout the day. Now these orders are processed in near real-time.
Benefits: The order request Web service processes orders faster, and it can compare orders to available inventory.
Tools: IBM WebSphere Studio Application Developer; IBM WebSphere Application Server, Advanced Edition; IBM WebSphere MQ; IBM DB2 Universal Database; OS/400; Microsoft Project
Development team: Mark Fodor, Greg Bobak, Bob Gutbrod, Mike Spirito, Ted Pshock, Brian Kayla, Vijay Cilveru, Wally Dal Pan, Ray Habel and Craig Pasquale
Things Remembered took a risky but innovative approach to solving its business partner ordering needs, and catering for strategic growth. They delved into emergent technologies, including WebSphere pre-release code to cater to the WS-Security standard. CXML data was serialized into SOAP messaging that conformed to WS-Security standards. This enabled their business partners to construct messages based on a WSDL description, or to use a proxy class provided by Things Remembered.
Their risk in using emerging technologies was offset by the experience and skill of the development team, who show an inherent grasp of abstraction coding. The project was completed successfully by a team of 10 in only six weeks -- an outstanding achievement.
Team Leader: Neville Goedhals, Manager, Enterprise Architecture, Keane Inc.
Click here to read about the finalist in this category, "Corporate Express' E-Way goes real-time", or click here to go to the Innovator Awards home page.
Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.