Small Businesses Get A Jumpstart With IBM

Web services are gaining momentum not only for big businesses in the upper echelon of capital and industry, but also at small- and medium-sized businesses that recognize the promise and potential Web services can provide.

Web services are more than one of today’s most important business technology trends. Web services are all about machine-to-machine communication, integrating different computing systems together through a combination of open standards and infrastructure software. Web services are a way to develop interconnectivity externally with partners and customers, and internally with existing legacy systems.

It should come as no surprise that IBM is trying to make inroads in the SMB market to develop demand for Web services. IBM’s WebSphere solutions reside at the core of its initiative and the jStart (short for jump start) program is where the company connects with SMBs.

WebSphere is a collection of Internet infrastructure software known as middleware. It enables companies to develop, deploy and integrate e-business applications, such as those for business-to-business e-commerce. WebSphere supports a myriad of business applications — from simple Web publishing to enterprise-scale transaction processing. WebSphere is capable of transforming the way businesses manage customer, partner and employee relationships because it is an information technology system that solves business problems.

IBM’s jStart program is one example of the company’s commitment to the advancement of Web services for SMBs. IBM Marketing Manager of Web Services, Siva Darivemula, said the jStart program debuted when IBM first started dabbling with Java back in 1996.

“The jStart program began as a way to introduce companies of all sizes to new technologies,” Darivemula said. “With IBM’s help, smaller companies are able to implement Web services solutions quickly, allowing them to achieve the best possible time-to-value solution for their businesses.”

Darivemula said that as technology evolved — from Java, to Linux, to XML, and to Web services — the jStart program evolved too.

“When Java and XML starting gaining traction in the late 90s, jStart was already ahead of the game and actively working with a variety of companies on implementations,” Darivemula explained. “Now that Java and XML have become mainstream, the jStart program has moved on to the next big thing — Web services.”

Putting IBM To Work
The jStart program is specifically designed to help businesses kickoff emerging technology projects. IMB has plenty of experience developing technology projects for Fortune 500 companies. As these first early adopters drive the cost of deploying new technologies down, the jStart program steps in to provide smaller business with the same combination of new tools and technical expertise. Think of the jStart program as a way emerging technologies can help small businesses stay one-step ahead of rivals.

There are many SMB customers using IBM’s Web services to help advance their businesses. Through the jStart program, IBM has helped more than 80 businesses put Web services to work for their organization.

One of IBM’s jStart participants is Things Remembered, a division of Cole National. The company operates more than 800 personalized gift stores and kiosks in 46 states. Things Remembered also offers mail order, toll-free call-center, and online buying options. Mark Foder, Cole National director of e-business, explained that the immediate problem Things Remembered brought to IBM, was how to track its inventory in real-time.

“We needed to improve or existing order-processing but we wanted to maintain control of the system so we could continue to manage it internally,” Foder said. “Originally, order requests were staged and retrieved by Things Remembered from partner Web sites once a day. We needed to replace this daily retrieval process with a Web service capable of accepting and processing orders in real time.”

Foder was aware of the evolution of Web services and realized that the key to solving the problem for Things Remembered was to develop and integration strategy. He hooked up with an IBM representative at a developers’ event in San Francisco, and the rest is history.

“I knew I could do it myself, I knew I could handle the code. I turned to jStart because I didn’t want anyone else to do the code, I wanted IBM there to help me mentor my team,” Foder said. “From a budgetary standpoint, I wanted to own the solution and manage the costs. We ended up creating one of the cheapest integration packages in the world. It was built for one reason, but over time, the same technical solution will be applicable to many other business problems.”

Things Remembered created its first Web site in 1999 using Microsoft Active Server Pages and SQL Server. Under the guidance of the jStart team, Foder and his team integrated the Things Remembered Web site with a central fulfillment module on an IBM iSeries server using IBM WebSphere MQ. This took care of leveraging existing order-processing applications. Foder said the next step for Things Remembered was to improve its online order entry process for channel partner sites, like 1-800-flowers.

“The challenge we faced was how to leverage our existing order processing system while delivering an Internet interface that would remain virtually the same for customers, while supporting the broadest possible client base of partners who use a variety of platforms and products,” Foder said.

The solution involved creating a new standards-based Order Request Web service that allowed the channel partner site to transmit purchase order requests to via a Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) message, using the Internet for transport. The new Web services solution and the clients/proxies were jointly developed by Things Remembered’s staff and IBM’s Advanced Technology Solution’s group.

Foder explained that when a channel partner is ready to submit an order, it invokes a proxy provided by Things Remembered. The proxy validates all the required input parameters and constructs a well-formed commerce Extensible Markup Language (cXML) order request. The proxy then serializes all the data into a SOAP message, which is digitally signed and sent to Things Remembered for processing. The implementation utilizes a security token in the SOAP message that conforms to the newly proposed ws-Security standard. In addition to the Web Services Description Language (WSDL) file that describes the interface, Java, .Net, and COM proxies were developed to make it easy for Things Remembered partners to invoke the Order Request Web service for other channel partners.

“The IBM jStart and ATS group really gave us confidence that the new Web services technologies were mature enough and secure enough for us to use. This helped us build this application in a little over a month,” Fodor said. “The new Web services approach provides a significant improvement in the way Things Remembered processes orders from our partners.”

Putting IBM To Work For You

What to businesses need to bring to the table to get involved with IBM’s jStart program? IBM’s Darivemula said that eligible businesses need to use or intend to use emerging Web services technologies such as SOAP and WSDL, among others. Typically these businesses are agile and technically savvy enough to understand that Web services could solve several nagging problems.

“We work with a lot of partners and usually they nominate a business for participation in the jStart program,” Darivemula said. “We start by determining where a bottleneck exists — payment processing is too slow, for example. We take a look at infrastructure and applications and determine if Web services could solve the problem. Sometimes it involves and IBM solution, sometimes it does not.”

More often than not, IBM has a solution. Its arsenal of software tools and hardware are usually capable of delivering a complete Web services solution. But more importantly, IBM also acts as a mentor for your technical team, teaching them how to use these sophisticated tools and technologies. Where this new level of technical expertise is applied within your business, is up to you.

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