The Web enterprise has arrived – transaction processing on the Web

The Web enterprise has arrived – transaction processing on the Web – Internet/Web/Online Service Information

Barbara Francett

Bank Bital’s customers move their money with the Web. Genentech’s managers get their HR data online. What do these companies know that you don’t?

The Web’s real payoff in commercial Applications isn’t in graphically intriguing Catalogs, flashy marketing information, or Even in the “push” technology currently attracting a lot of media attention. Rather, it’s in transaction processing — the nitty-gritty of mission-critical applications.

But the path to Web-enabled transactions isn’t an easy one. A lot of organizations talk about Web-enabling TP applications, but very few have taken the plunge, Valid concerns about security, performance, and the stateless nature of the Internet — the antithesis of reliable transaction processing — inhibit many. “Web development is backward in many organizations,” says Eric Woods, a senior analyst at Ovum, a London-based consultancy. “They fly by the seat of their pants. There’s a need to define requirements in a robust fashion.”

The result, Woods says, is much talk, little action. “Not a lot [of organizations] are doing actual applications,” he says. “They’re still exploring.” That should change, he adds, as Web development tools become more mature and organizations move from a fascination with the “glitz” of Web development to a focus on more complex, mission-critical applications.

Nevertheless, some IS pros have embarked on innovative strategies to give transactions the advantage of the Web’s reach in both intranet and Internet applications. Their solutions are as diverse as the business drivers motivating them. And while the applications may be relatively small now these pioneers concur that they are onto something big.

For its part, Bank Bital in Mexico City Offers customers the convenience of home banking via a Web-based application developed to gain an advantage in the fiercely competitive Mexican banking industry. “We are fighting to be number three” due to an influx of competition from European and Spanish banks, says Jorge Sosa, subdirector of branch development. “It is important for us to appear innovative,” he says.

Using the bank’s Conexion Empresarial Bital (CEB) Web application, home banking customers can access their accounts, check balances, transfer money between accounts, and make credit card payments. The application, which is still in the testing stage, currently serves about 100 concurrent users, Sosa estimates. The bank’s total customer base is three million.

Bank Bital developed CEB using Information Builders’ Cactus application development software. IBI’s EDA Hub Server middleware provides communication with IBM’s mainframe-based Datacom/DB database and interacts with Hogan Systems’ banking software through the stored procedure gateway. CEB currently runs on a Windows NT server, but is being moved to a Sun E4000 platform for greater scalability as the application moves into production, Sosa says.

“We might not have too much volume initially,” says Sosa, “but it’s important that customers see us as `the technology bank.'”

Power to the People

Processing transactions on the Internet offers several advantages, according to Joe Mislinski, vice president of technology marketing at document management systems provider Moore Document Solutions, a division of Moore U.S.A. Inc., Lake Forest, Ill. These include “one catalog for multiple vendors, national opportunity, no added infrastructure, ease of use, and accessibility,” says Mislinski. The company has developed an Internet version of MooreSource, its one-stop purchasing system that tailors product information to specific customers. When a customer logs onto the MooreSource site, the system shows that customer only the specific items and pricing structures previously agreed to by contract. Customers choose items and quantities, and place their orders. If the order exceeds the user’s purchasing authority, the order goes into a queue for a manager to view and approve before the order is processed.

The Internet version of MooreSource, developed with the OrderStream electronic commerce application development software from Connect Inc., uses HP servers, Oracle7.3, and the Netscape Web server. Moore will add consolidated invoicing and credit card processing capabilities to the next release of MooreSource for the Internet, slated for this month. Only two customer organizations are currently using the Internet version, which went live in April, but they encompass thousands of potential end users. “We’re in the early stages,” Mislinski says. “We have a backlog of accounts that are interested in this. It’s a matter of ramping up expeditiously.”

Genentech, a San Francisco-based biotech company, has already ramped up a Web-enabled intranet application that extends access to human resources information to 700 managers across 15 buildings on its San Francisco campus. The need for interactivity spurred the development of a Web-enabled solution, according to Chris Christian, principal at systems integrator CRC Business Solutions Inc., and the project manager for the application. “Initially, we thought we needed a cross-platform, client/server solution, not a Web-enabled application,” Christian says. “But as we moved from a read-only, reporting model to an interactive-use model, we realized we could deploy the application in a browser environment.” The company’s policy of allowing employees to use the desktop hardware and software of their choice further emphasized the need for a common denominator — and a Web browser neatly filled the bill.

The transient nature of many Genentech employees — for instance, postdoctoral researchers who may come onboard for specific projects, leave when their studies are concluded, and return sometime in the future for new projects — made it necessary to push responsibility for performance reviews from the human resources group to managers.

Due to the sensitive nature of employee information, security was a crucial issue. Managers wanted to be able to download information, load it into Excel spreadsheets, and run analyses on their desktops. “We didn’t want to let anybody actually log onto the database, but [instead] let the application do it and let people talk to the application,” Christian says. Managers submit user names and application passwords to a multithreaded application server, which provides security regarding whose information can be accessed and what reports can be run.

Genentech’s Gemini human resources application was developed using Prolifics 2.1 transactional application development software, and runs on a DEC Alpha server accessing an Oracle7 database, with Netscape Enterprise Server as the Web server component. Desktop users currently use Netscape Navigator 2.0 and 3.0, and soon, Netscape Communicator, as their Web browser.

Although Gemini is a two-tier solution, CRC is now building a Java-based version with a messaging middleware layer using Prolifics 3.0, which includes an embedded “lite” version of BEA’s Tuxedo transaction monitor. The three-tier version of the application will accommodate its extension to a second campus — the company’s manufacturing facility in Vacaville, Calif. — and, next year, its distribution to remote company sales offices, which will communicate with the application via a dial-up network.

“By the first quarter of 1998, this application will scale from 700 users to 3,000 users, as [Genentech] moves to employee self-service,” Christian says. In other words, employees will be able to directly access some human resources information themselves. “The TP monitor will help ensure greater security, timely performance reviews done on a focal-point rather than an anniversary basis, and access to total compensation information to reduce employee turnover,” Christian says.

Health-Care Delivery

ATP monitor is also a critical component of Spectra, a Web-enabled transaction system at Oxford Health Plans, a managed care organization in Norwalk, Conn. According to CIO Paul Ricker, Spectra will help Oxford manage rapid business growth without adding to the information systems infrastructure. From 1993 to 1996, Oxford’s revenue grew from $311 million to $3 billion “and continues to grow,” Ricker says. “Coping with growth is something we have to be very good at.’

Oxford’s Spectra application was built “with the business goal of better managing specialty care,” Ricker says. As he explains, even a common procedure like hip replacement kicks off a complex path of treatment components — the general practitioner who recommends the procedure, the surgeon and anesthesiologist who perform it, the hospital where the procedure is done, the supplier that delivers the new hip, and the rehabilitative facility. Each treatment process also entails a chain of payments and reimbursements. Spectra charts and tracks what treatments are done, when payments are made, and how these correspond to the treatment program to ensure that all charted steps are taken.

“When a claim comes in, a mechanism alerts the specialty management group that a person is about to enter the specialty management treatment program,” Ricker says. “We use the Web to give our source organizations the ability to interact with our own systems.” For example, the Web is a delivery mechanism for providing information to Oxford customers — employee groups to whom the firm sells medical insurance. The specialty group and associated physicians can use the Web to get status information as patients progress through the stages of their treatment.

“The Web puts a common mechanism on people’s desks, which allows them — with the fight ID and passwords — to get an immediate response,” Ricker says. Currently in test mode, Spectra will go into production use before the end of the year. Developed in conjunction with Denver-based systems integrator Tanning Technology Corp., the application now runs on a Sun platform and uses Oracle7.3. The Web component is written in Java, and end users will be able to access Spectra on the Web with any standard Web browser.

Oxford gains scalability via BEA’s Tuxedo transaction monitor, Ricker says. “Without a TP monitor, the back end will start to tank as we go through upgrade paths. With a three-tier application, we have more flexibility in making changes. We can change the back-end platform and let the TP monitor direct traffic accordingly without changing front-end screens.”

Development in IS Hands

A unique Web site at Mentor Graphics Corp., a Wilsonville, Ore., electronic design automation (EDA) company, lets users conduct commercial transactions for an unusual commodity: intellectual property products. Designed specifically for electronic commerce, www.eparts.com is distinct from the company’s general Web site, www.mentorg.com. The eParts site lets customers buy the data necessary to make the company’s tools work.

“In EDA, the tools are very complex,” says software engineer and Web developer Mark von Pressentin. Intellectual property is a grab-bag term that refers to pieces of silicon design used in ASICS, or custom chips, in the form of graphical representations or models that let customers simulate the workings of a circuit. “This is part of design reuse in the electronic design industry. It’s important [to our customers] in reducing time-to-market,” von Pressentin says. “eParts is the first Web site of its kind in the EDA industry where customers can actually contact the site, build their awareness of our products, buy the products through a business transaction, and take delivery through downloads.”

Mentor Graphics developed the system with Sapphire/Web application development software from Bluestone Software. It runs on a Hewlett-Packard 735 with Netscape Enterprise as the Web server, accessing data from an Oracle7.3 database on a Sun UltraSparc.

The site offers a “guest” area for users seeking information and a “member” area for customers. According to von Pressentin, the guest area generates from 1,000 to 1,500 hits a week. Traffic in the member area is currently limited to about 10 to 15 regular customers, less than 1% of the company’s customer base, but the site has been open for business for just four months. He expects usage to grow rapidly as the sales force brings the site’s availability to customers’ attention.

Here’s how transactions in the member area take place: Prior to entering the site, customers sets up a purchase order with the site administrator. Then the customers “shop” for electronic properties they need, clicking on their selections to put them into a “shopping cart.” Customers may use a single purchase order for multiple projects; more often, however, they’ll have several purchase orders covering multiple projects or sites.

Shopping all done? Time to proceed to the “checkout,” where a “buy-it” button lets customers confirm their purchases. If the products and prices match the limits set on the purchase order, the purchase is approved, and the data is copied into the customer site’s inventory, where customers can then download it.

Next for Mentor is building the infrastructure for international trade, a task involving complex legal definitions and taxation issues, von Pressentin says. “Over 50% of our business is outside the U.S., so this is perceived as a worthwhile effort.”

Such innovative Web transaction applications promise to be commonplace in the near future, “wiping out the two-tier client/server environment in corporate America,” predicts Larry Tanning, CEO of Tanning Technology. “The cost of deployment is enormously lower. [You can change] software and hardware without doing a major upgrade. And it puts software development back where it belongs — away from the end user and back to IS.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Self-Service Human Resources at Genentech

Genentech’s interactive, Web-enabled human resources application allows 700 managers to access HR information about their employees so they can conduct more timely performance reviews and present total compensation packages. Using Web browsers, managers access the Netscape Enterprise Web server, which accesses the Prolifics application server. The Prolifics server then accesses an Oracle7 database, where the HR information is stored. Next year, the applications will be extended to give nearly 3,000 employees access to the HR information as well.

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