Enter SilverStream

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2002-03-18 Print this article Print

Even as it filed for bankruptcy protection, the sugar powerhouse sought a high-tech escape hatch framed by XML and J2EE.

Enter SilverStream

After looking at "all the major vendors," Muller and Clemmons were drawn to SilverStream and its Composer software, a Java-based XML integration server. Composer could create applications that worked well with mainframe computers, not just servers, and required little training, asserts Fred Holahan, SilverStream's vice president and general manager of e-business integration products

Familiarity also came into play. SilverStream's Java 2 Enterprise Edition-based application servers were already used to serve up Imperial's internal Web applications.

SilverStream did a proof-of-concept deployment in a week, says Muller. The test convinced Muller and Clemmons that they could quickly bring Clemmons' team of four developers up to speed on the product.

The SilverStream approach also was a lot cheaper than using a PeopleSoft portal to interact with customers, an option it considered. Muller won't comment on which other products were tested.

While neither SilverStream nor Imperial will discuss costs, the software configuration required by Imperial is list-priced by SilverStream at about $50,000 per processor on a server. Negotiated prices kept the project well under half-a-million dollars.

Composer is broken down into three components: an integration design tool, which runs on desktop computers, and an integration server and data source connectors, which run on the application server. Developers use the design tool to create code that runs on the server by using live terminal sessions on mainframe applications and connections to back-end databases, to map where data comes from and goes to. The resulting XML-based applications can be set up as Web applications, or they can be turned into pure Web services, which would allow customers' purchasing systems to connect directly to the integration server. While the generated applications are written in Java, little, if any, Java programming is required.

Software "connectors" translate processes between different applications and data sources. Data captured by the connectors is translated into XML request and response documents, so that customers don't have to worry where information on their orders resides; it just gets delivered to their screens. SilverStream provides connectors for IBM mainframe 3270 applications and electronic document data streams, as well as relational databases.

To build the order-status checking service, Clemmons' team used a 3270 screen emulation within Composer's design tool to run the legacy sales applications that the data came from. By dragging and dropping data from the sugar sales applications onto a digital pallet, the team was able to quickly map where data would come from in two separate legacy systems, and how it would then appear on Web pages that customers would use.

Just as Imperial emerged from bankruptcy in August, the self-service application was ready to be rolled out to initial customers. Using it, sugar buyers now can log into the system from any Web browser on any Internet-connected computer and find out the status of an order, 24 hours a day.

But there was another constituency to sell this to: Imperial's human customer service representatives. "The salespeople were reluctant to change," says Clemmons.

Since Imperial was formed over 90 years ago from a family-run sugar plantation, the company has relied on personal connections to sell sugar to confectioners, bakers and bulk sugar dealers. While larger customers can submit orders electronically, Imperial's primary interaction with its customers is still through its staff of 20 customer service representatives.

The representatives manually enter orders and status inquiries into two separate mainframe applications. Prior to the rollout of the self-service system, a customer service representative could spend as much as five hours of the workday on the phone handling customer inquiries.

The self-service application threatened their relationship with customers. But that began to change as Clemmons' team started bringing customers onto the secure extranet and giving them access to the self-help application. For the salespeople who were early adopters, the time spent on status inquiries dropped from five hours to two hours or less. Soon, the customer service reps were clamoring for Clemmons to get more customers online.

By halving the phone workload, Imperial nearly doubled its effective salesforce (in man-hours)—and let customer service representatives take a more consultative approach to sales.

The next project for Clemmons' team is to allow customers to place orders over the Web. While that project is still in its earliest phases, it's already had an impact on Imperial's bottom line. Muller has been able to use the Web services effort as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the network companies who currently handle Imperial's connections for the older technology known as electronic document interchange or EDI. With a free service in the wings that could conceivably replace them, the EDI network vendors were willing to strike a deal.

As a result, Imperial has been able to reduce the cost of operating its existing EDI services. Imperial's chief financial officer, Chris Brewster, declined to provide specific cost savings, although savings on communications costs alone could pay for Composer within a year.

The results are just beginning to affect the company's financial statements anyway. Imperial has posted only one full quarter of results since the self-service application kicked in and the bigger savings won't kick in until Clemmons' team deploys online order-taking. In fact, there's been a small uptick in sales, general and administrative costs since the software was rolled out.

However, any savings help. The company just eked out its first operating profit in six quarters: $669,000 on net sales of $322.3 million. That's probably the only metric at Imperial that matters right now.

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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