E-Business: From "Over There" to Here: Legacy Code Conversion Helps AAFES Bring Santa to Soldiers

With its "customers" spread out all over the globe, the Army Air Force Exchange Services needed a way to migrate its COBOL-based mainframe system to a Web-based sales operation in a three-month period. MERANT Micro Focus' Net Express provided the answer for servicemen and women to do their shopping via the Internet.

Santa Claus made everyone happy at Army Air Force Exchange Services (AAFES) last year. A move to e-commerce resulted in an impressive 10 percent increase in catalog business.

But the real present came earlier when the Information Services (IS) staff at AAFES’ Dallas location migrated its existing COBOL-based mainframe system to a state-of-the-art Web-based sales operation in less than three months.

With roots that go back to 1895, and more than $7.1 billion in annual sales, AAFES is the eighth-largest retailer in the world. Its active catalog operation is similar to Sears or JCPenney’s. AAFES is unique in that its customer base is limited to active and retired military personnel and people stationed overseas with the Department of Defense.

Think of the AAFES Web site (www.aafes.com) as an online PX/BX (post exchange or base exchange). All of the AAFES inventory, pricing data, customer lists, credit card and other data have resided on IBM mainframe computers for decades. In 1996, Louis Merced, Senior Vice President of Information Systems for AAFES, saw the potential of Internet-based marketing and e-commerce and proposed a Web presence to AAFES management. Now soldiers stationed around the world can access a laptop and order gifts for loved ones, pay for them online, and be assured of delivery, without going through foreign postal systems.

The IS department’s challenge was accessing the vast amounts of information stored on the IBM mainframes in Information Management System (IMS) databases with a Web-based front-end that would be attractive and easily navigated by customers. IMS is IBM’s main database management system. The data on those mainframes was not outdated, nor was it gathering cobwebs. In fact, the mainframes remain the key repository of sales and marketing data for AAFES.

What was needed was a way to allow customers to access that product information in the most modern of ways: the Internet.

Although the online sales capability at AAFES is a couple of years old, the 1998 Christmas season was the first one on a Microsoft-based system. Prior to that, AAFES used a homegrown program written in a technology called SEER.

The computerized catalog is about 20 years old. It is a mainframe-based system that made its way from ISAM and VSAM files to today’s IMS system. The catalog business has been run as any typical catalog would. The primary catalog is sent out twice a year: a Spring/Summer version and a Fall/Winter version. Customers were offered the option of mailing in orders, stopping in at a store, or calling a toll-free number. Now, customers can shop and order over the Internet.

Converting Legacy Code

The biggest challenge faced by AAFES programmers was to make the huge amount of data residing on legacy IBM S/390 mainframes accessible from the Web.

A product called Net Express from MERANT Micro Focus (Mountain View, Calif.), proved to be the key to easy migration. Net Express enabled AAFES to extend its legacy systems to handle the modern needs of Web-based selling.

A previous experience with IMS data access had given the IS department a head start on the project. Several years ago, when operating under Windows 3.1.1, the department had to access IMS data from remote stores. IS did the job successfully with a product called Application to Application Interface (AAI) from Micro Focus. AAI is a protocol converter that allowed AAFES developed programs to communicate with the Microsoft SNA server and talk to the IMS program. AAFES used AAI successfully on a program that enabled scanning of universal product codes (UPCs) at remote bases, while accessing information from the Dallas mainframe when prices did not match those at the remote site.

This time, AAFES used Net Express, an object-oriented COBOL tool, to speed the process of bringing the catalog online and attaching it to the legacy systems. Since all of the mainframe code is COBOL-based, the problem was finding a way to bring it to the PC level and handle it at the Web servers. Net Express lets programmers quickly construct enterprise components from existing business logic and use these to develop new Web or client/server applications across a distributed enterprise. It allowed AAFES to rehost appropriate sections of programs and perform much-needed edits. It provides a sophisticated IDE that incorporates a complete suite of application development tools and wizards. Powerful project handling capabilities simplify the edit, compile and debug cycle, and an editor tailored to the needs of COBOL programmers makes it easy to modify code.

Overall Approach

The success of this project must be credited to Louis Merced, his foresight and the general strategy followed at AAFES. IS simply treated the Web as another interface to the existing system. This avoided the trap of developing an entire new Web-centric system. The existing billing system, the inventory control system and ordering system were maintained in the 20-year old legacy code that resides on the mainframe.

The decision was made not to change the way the operation had done business for decades. Rather, IS would design the project so people using the Web would feed into the system the way in which a store clerk or an operator at the catalog call center would access the database.

Using the Web as an interface made success possible in an extremely short period of time. There was no reason to write a new billing system. There was no need for a Microsoft-centric ordering system or an inventory product that ran under Windows NT. Nobody had to worry about populating databases with tens of thousands of product codes, or linking UPC numbers to prices.

AAFES was lucky in one respect – its needs and Micro Focus’ release of Net Express overlapped. The initial outlay of the Web was to follow the vendor’s to-do list.

Personnel Requirements

The extension of the COBOL systems to the Web required minimal personnel investment. In addition to a project leader, there were only two active server page (ASP) programmers, who were also the Webmasters; and two COBOL programmers who were familiar with the legacy system.

Putting the catalog sales online, from the system perspective, was about the equivalent of writing an interface for a new system that needed to talk to the mainframe. For instance, to pass the mainframe an order, all that was required was to provide the needed copybook to get the order.

AAFES invested about 30 to 60 days in doing the legacy link. The design and development of the ASP pages was outside that timeframe and required additional personnel.

Step by Step

The first step was to create common gateway interfaces (CGIs). The CGIs perform specified actions when the user clicks on the Web screen. After creating the CGIs, the IS department realized that the system’s needs would outrun the capabilities of the CGIs quickly. Every time someone hit one of the CGIs, the system launched a new copy of the program. This would eventually bog down the system’s capabilities.

The natural migration was to go from CGI programs into a native dynamic link library (DLL). DLLs run within the server. They allow executable code modules to be loaded on demand and stay resident in memory, improving system performance. The next performance increase came when the DLLs were converted to the object linking and embedding (OLE) module. At the same time, the decision was made to move from HTML to ASP. This allowed invoking of COM objects and provided a solid boost in processing speed and performance.

Net Express provides support for accessing OLE Automation Server from COBOL, allowing use of desktop applications (Microsoft Word and Excel) to automate business functions, such as report generation. Any existing COBOL business logic can be turned into a COM object that can be accessed by other applications. A wizard automatically generates the interface needed for a COM object, and all IS had to do was drop in existing code.

Just when everything looked good, high traffic volumes dictated a third migration. This moved the pieces from a standard COM module to a multi-threaded COM module. Multi-threading allows concurrent processing of more than one message by the application program. Each program can start two or more threads which do related tasks, but require less overhead than two separate programs would take.

That is today’s system: multi-threaded COM objects on the server. Keep in mind that most information is pulled from the mainframe. There is a structured query language (SQL) table on the server. It has a list of items that have been moved to the Web, and the graphics pictures, so they can pull that back with speed.

As a customer searches the database, this information moves at high speed on the SQL server. When the customer prepares to place an order, generally at the "view my shopping cart" command, the mainframe takes over. Up-to-the-minute inventory data, customer histories, credit card verification and other key pieces of data are kept on the mainframe. The customer can find out whether inventories are low, whether an item is on backorder, and other relevant data. The mainframe remains the brain center for all catalog sales business.

Handling Credit

The Web-based system is also tied into the credit card process (the process still resides on the mainframe).

Like any other retailer, AAFES accepts MasterCard, Visa and American Express. There is also the military DPP card. However, AAFES does no online verification. The primary reason is cost, since verification costs much less when run overnight as a batch process on the mainframe. Some local edits are performed and validated.

The exception is for the military DPP card. Since AAFES hosts that credit card data, approvals for DPP are made online. Again using Net Express, AAFES quickly extended the mainframe-based statement inquiry system to the Web, eliminating statement mailing and associated costs. Now, customers can pay their DPP bill or check outstanding balances online.

Over the Web, from the moment the customer keys in acceptance of what is in the shopping cart, the transaction is handled on the mainframe, under the same 20-year-old legacy system.

Booming Success

AAFES’ initial goal was to get three percent of its business over the Internet. Management figured anything over one percent would make the project successful enough to keep it going. As it turns out, the Web initiative was amazingly successful, bringing in 10 percent of the business by year-end. It was a far larger piece of business than anticipated.

In addition to the easy-to-use Web design, there were several less-obvious reasons for the success. The growth of the Internet in general helped. AAFES has a loyal customer base, especially among retirees, and they were willing to try Internet-based buying. There have been a number of base closures over the past several years, and military customers were forced to drive sometimes 150 to 250 miles to shop at an open BX/PX. The Internet was a handy alternative, letting AAFES reclaim lost business by putting merchandise right into the customers’ living rooms or home offices.

With the huge 10 percent success the first year, AAFES expected that figure to climb a little bit in the second year online. The system was geared up somewhat, but was mainly allowed to run its course. It turned into a 21-percent lift in catalog business only.

Many people in marketing expected a fall-off after the traditional Christmas buying season. But the percentages never dropped. The business continued to climb as AAFES came into the current holiday season. In September, the figure for Web-based business was 31 percent of volume – at a time still short of the seasonal buying rush.

The IS department is rolling with the punches. The total number of hits in May was 1.5 million. In July, the site had 16 million hits – more than an 11-fold increase. While this kind of hockey-stick growth can not continue long, it remains a fact that the base for Web sales is climbing.

Some marketers are concerned the Internet will steal business from the toll-free numbers. That has not happened at AAFES, where sales are jingling both over the Web and on the "800" number lines. In the first year of full operation, AAFES has determined that the Web pulled about 15 percent of its business from the "800" number and mail. But more recent figures show that total business has not only increased for both Web and "800" number sales, but that the catalog has recovered that 15 percent and then some. The phone and mail-in sales have continued to grow with the Internet sales. Some of this increase in sales through the traditional avenues may be a result of the Web site, which allows people to browse for merchandise or check prices. Although they do not actually buy over the Internet, they do pick up a phone and use the toll-free number to make their purchase.

This is translating into real business. The CONUS (Continental U.S.) warehouse in Atlanta is expected to pull 27 percent more tickets for merchandise than they did last year. They expect their number of tickets pulled to climb from 49,000 per month last year to 62,000-65,000 during this year’s holiday season. Japan is seeing a 29-percent increase, from 6,900 to 8,900-10,000 tickets per month. Europe expects orders to rise from 18,500 to 30,000 per month by the end of this year.

About the Author: Clyde O. Todd is Section Chief of Internet Operations, Army Air Force Exchange Services, under whose watch AAFES has grown from having no e-business operation to one with an expected income of 17.6 million for 1999.