Application Framework for E-Business

Every manager knows they have to do e-business. The television commercials are endless. The billboards assault us. Every conversation seems to find its way to e-business. We know we have to do this or we'll end up eating the dust of our competitors.

Unfortunately, most IS managers have no clear idea what a sound e-business strategy looks like. In fact, if a really good strategy knocked on your door you might slam the door on it like it was an annoying door-to-door salesman.

Don't lose hope, though. IBM has recently gone to the trouble of clearly defining what a sound e-business strategy looks like, and after examining its "Application Framework for E-Business," we think it's something you should know about.

Our first reaction to the framework was, "Oh, it's just another IBM marketing ploy." But after taking a closer look, we found that the framework can be used to build an e-business solution that takes advantage of more than just IBM products. Certainly, IBM's intention is for you to use IBM products, but the whole concept of a framework for e-business can be beneficial even if you're using third-party products in combination with IBM software and/or hardware.

Big Blue's Spin Cycle on E-Business
IBM has defined a four-stage cycle for doing e-business: Transform, Build, Run, and Leverage. The key to the first stage of the cycle, Transform, is understanding that your e-business priorities should be the same as your normal business priorities. Once you understand this, you can make an informed decision about what business process should be the first to transition to e-business.

The second stage of the cycle, Build, involves the actual deployment of the e-business application. The fastest way to build an e-business application is to Web-enable an existing application. If you have an application that allows you to browse your product catalog, consider exposing this to the Web and allowing your customers to explore the catalog from a browser. When it comes time to add features, you can expand the read-only catalog to a shopping cart application by integrating it with your order entry and inventory management applications.

The third stage of the cycle is very important. Once an e-business solution has been built, obviously the solution must be run to see how it handles workload volumes, security and management. The information gained from the Run cycle can be used to drive later refinements.

Although the first three parts of the cycle are nearly self-evident, part four, Leverage, is often overlooked. By carefully examining the data collected by your e-business application, you can gain a better understanding of what your customers want and guide the development of your e-business application as you move back to the beginning of the cycle.

A Framework for E-Business
IBM defines the Framework as:
  • A set of industry standards and technologies,
  • Proven methodology,
  • Leadership products.
The IBM Application Framework for E-Business works well because it allows you to fill your technology needs with products from IBM or a company other than IBM. That said, and with apologies to the IBM people who went to great lengths to outline which IBM products fit each Framework niche, we present a generalized version of the framework below.

The framework is composed of three functional areas:

  • Development Tools and Components
  • Web Application Servers
  • Security and System Management
The key to understanding the framework is seeing how a product fits a niche in the framework.

Development Tools and Components
Because the framework depends heavily on Java, to build an e-business application following the framework, your development tool must support Java. More importantly, it must support server side Java technologies like Servlets, JavaBeans, and Enterprise JavaBeans.

On Windows or Unix platforms this is an easy bill to fill, but on the AS/400, it's much more complicated. Because the AS/400 is exclusively a server platform, you'll probably want to do your Java development on another platform like Windows or Unix.

There are countless Java development tools available for these platforms, but not many of them feature tight integration with the AS/400. You'll find it much easier to develop and deploy server side applications with a tool that promises that tight integration.

Web Application Servers
A Web application server is an HTTP server or an extension to an HTTP server that allows you to run applications within the Web server and handle important processes such as database connection pooling and transaction control. Since Java is such a heavy part of the application framework, any Web application server you consider should be able to run Java Servlets, JavaBeans and Enterprise JavaBeans and possibly Java Server Pages.

Typically a Web application calls either a Java Server Page or a Servlet, that in turn calls JavaBeans to carry out business logic. The JavaBeans pass the results back to the Servlet or Java Server Page that formats the result in HTML and returns them to the browser.

In the most complicated case, the business logic could be written in Enterprise Java Beans and distributed across multiple platforms to allow for scalability. Also remember that the JavaBeans may encapsulate calls to legacy code.

Security and Network Management
Because a Web application is by nature a network application, some manner of security must be provided. A directory, usually in the industry standard LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) format is used to store information about users, groups and roles. The Web application can use the LDAP directory to make sure that only authorized users get access to protected resources.

A Public Key Infrastructure is the preferred method for user authentication. Digital certificates are used to store information about a user, and public keys are matched to confirm that a user is who they say they are. Also, the certificate can be used to enable Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption.

It's no surprise that IT managers are loath to connect their mission-critical systems to the Internet, and to tell you the truth, they should be. But paranoia should not prevent you from launching an e-business project. Use a firewall to protect the mission-critical systems from random outside attacks. A firewall will also allow access to the needed resources and can control outbound connections so that internal clients can be restricted from accessing specific sites and protocols.

Hopefully, this overview has given you at least a basic understanding of the Framework. For a more in-depth discussion of this methodology, visit