Popcorn and E-Commerce: Navarre Entertains Vendors with Web to Host

Remember getting that new VCR, and tossing that old reel-to-reel projector into the attic? Over the past 20 years, people have been collecting their favorite movies on videotape. But, that technology may also go right out the door, or into the attic, that is. With Digital Video Disk (DVD) technology exploding in the late 1990s, movie buffs are slowly converting their collections to DVDs. But, how do you know that you'll be able to get a DVD copy of "The Matrix," or that "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" will be readily available to replace your run-down video of this comedy classic. Well, Navarre Corporation, a distributor of consumer software and entertainment products, had both since before the end of 1999. You may not be able to purchase the DVDs directly from Navarre, since it doesn't sell to the off-the-street consumer, but try your luck with one of its clients, like Best Buy or Amazon.com.

Navarre operates one of the first e-commerce Web sites, www.navarre.com, that allows their vendors to scan product catalogs, place orders, submit publisher and label applications, and, now, check inventory schedules and restocking needs. It is attracting clients, like the ones mentioned above, giving Navarre a 57 percent share of the U.S. entertainment computer software market, and over $210 million in annual revenue (1999). Currently, Navarre is divided into three major business segments: The Computer Products Division (CPD) distributes quality consumer software and CD/ROMs in the United States; the Independent Music Distribution (IMD) distributes independent music labels in the U.S. and Canada; and the Alternative Retail Markets (ARM) distributes major label music and DVD to non-traditional retail outlets. Its Web site provides fulfillment for, both traditional and Web-based retail sites, making the most of Navarre's business transactions Internet based. In order to solidify and expand its market position, Navarre has placed a high priority on offering value-added services to all its customers. In order to reach this goal, Navarre revamped its Web site to allow for more Electronic Data Interchange, giving vendors the flexibility to access information whenever and from wherever they wish.

With plans to increase the number of business activities on the Internet, one of the services Navarre wanted to implement during 1999 was an online supply-chain management system that would allow customers to view their inventory and shipment activity, and determine restocking needs and schedules. In order to enable access to its mainframe-based inventory tracking application through a universal and user-friendly interface, Navarre decided to deploy a solution proposed by their service bureau: Winsurf Mainframe Access (WMA) Web-to-host software from ICOM Informatics. Following four months of testing and deployment, Navarre's vendors now can access up-to-date inventory, shipment and restocking statistics from the Web site. Additionally, in-house administrators benefit from central administration and deployment capabilities offered by Web-to-host technologies.

Obstacles of Mainframe Access

Navarre's inventory application resides on a Hitachi Model 115 mainframe located at Scicom Data Services, a computer services company with more than 200 employees specializing in computing outsourcing, employee benefits, financial statements and direct marketing services (see Figure 1). Prior to the implementation of a Web-to-host solution, Navarre's employees accessed the inventory application through a traditional emulation product, DI3270 DOS Terminal Emulation Software. Up to four employees were assigned the function of accessing host-based apps, answering inquiries and printing and faxing the data to customers. This service was only offered during business hours, and was dependent on the availability of Navarre employees; therefore, there was chance for request backlogs and outdated information. Vendors could, also, access the mainframe via a dialup connection, but this posed security concerns since this method gave customers direct access to Navarre's network.

Diego Alfarache, Division Manager of Technical Services at ICOM Informatics, explains, "In order to allow a straight Telnet connection, you pretty much have to give the world access to the Telnet port on the gateway, which means you have to make a hole in your firewall, which makes it easier for someone to breach." Hence, Navarre needed a better solution, one that would give its customers easier and faster realtime access to inventory information. Some of the issues considered were vendor platform diversity, security of direct connections between vendors and the mainframe and the complexity of deploying and administrating the new software.

Scicom to the Rescue

Web-based host connectivity technologies were first introduced to Navarre's technical staff by Edward Vick, Vice President at Scicom. In early 1998, Navarre was looking to add another DOS gateway to increase the number of connections to Scicom's IBM-compatible mainframe. Vick took the opportunity to introduce and implement Winpass TNserver, an SNA gateway from ICOM Informatics. When a project to revamp the Navarre Web site began in mid-1999, he realized that a Web-to-host solution would use technologies provided by the Internet, and allow his client to meet its progressive e-commerce strategy. "It's the browser interface that gives the ability for people to utilize a common interface, so they don't have to play around with 3270. If you can integrate the two then that's what needs to be done," states Vick.

With some additional consideration of Navarre's goals and requirements, Vick determined that his original notion was correct and a Web-to-host solution would be the best answer. He had explored other mainframe-only software systems, but none had the client platform flexibility, and many didn't provide the needed encryption capabilities. Standard Web-to-host features like central administration and deployment, as well as compatibility with any Internet browser accommodated Navarre's initial needs. When researching which product to recommend, Vick considered other characteristics, including the level of security for both administrative duties and direct vendor-to-mainframe connections, the ability for Navarre administrators to offer, both a downloadable 3270 emulator and automatic HTML conversion, and ease of use for end users, as well as Navarre employees.

After verifying that all technical requirements were met, Vick presented Navarre with Winsurf Mainframe Access Web-to-host software. Having worked with Scicom and ICOM before, Travis Dye, Network Manager at Navarre and Al Sjoberg, CIO, believed both companies' provided high-quality products and support. Additionally, Navarre was familiar with ICOM because Navarre's intranet was currently running DI3270 DOS emulators, from Data Interface Systems, which was acquired by ICOM Informatics. After a few weeks of testing and evaluation by Dye and Sjoberg, they decided to act on Vick's recommendation and purchase a 25 concurrent-user license of WMA Web-to-host software.

Building on the E-Commerce Site

Navarre began the deployment of Web-to-host in November 1999 as part of a project to revamp the entire Web site to reflect a more e-business/e-commerce type image. Dye performed the Mainframe Access installation single-handedly, with minimal involvement from Vick and Alfarache's technical teams. "WMA was pretty simple to install. If they had a questions, they just asked by phone," reveals Vick. WMA was installed on a Windows NT IIS server at Navarre's home office in New Hope, Minn. (see Figure 1 on page 32). The software package included a security server and the Winsurf Internet Development toolkit, which reside on the same machine.

Due to overwhelming work involved in reworking vital areas of the Web site, testing of the new software was pushed back until early 2000. Dye's priority was to roll out the electronic ordering and payment portion of the site before the holiday season hit full blast. In late January 2000, testing of Winsurf Mainframe Access took place for over two weeks. Dye created several small, in-house test groups by transferring existing employees' preferences from the SAM database. Even after satisfactory performance within all testing groups, it was well into February when Navarre finally released the software to its client base.

The WMA server was configured so that vendors with Windows desktops can download the 3270 emulation software in the form of ActiveX controls or plug-ins to run under Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator browsers. Vendors using all other platforms, such as Mac or UNIX desktops, utilize the on-the-fly HTML conversion feature provided by the Winsurf Internet Development piece, which automatically converts the 3270 data stream to HTML on the WMA server.

The Winsurf Security Server, yet another piece of this Web-to-host solution residing on the Windows NT server, is based on the SSL v3.0 protocol, therefore it met the authentication and encryption standards set by Navarre.

Alfarache elaborates on how this piece is used, "What's happening behind the scenes is that we have set up an SSL-encrypted connection between the vendor's PC and our Winsurf Security Server running at Navarre. The security server then turns around and talks TN3270E to Winpass TNserver all within Navarre's firewall. The TNserver then in turn talks SNA via SDLC to the Scicom mainframe."

Both Navarre's administrators and vendors were satisfied with the final deployment and ease-of-use of the Web-to-host solution. Brian Casey, Travis Dye's replacement, found it was quite simple to administer the software after it was installed. He had created a link to the Scicom mainframe directly on the Navarre Web site, and then provided authorized vendors with a logon name and password. The first time a vendor accesses the service, the 3270 emulator is downloaded to his machine. The Web-to-host server recognizes the desktop where the emulator resides, and transmits the appropriate client component: ActiveX plug-in or pure HTML code. With great familiarity of browser technologies, vendors required little to no training, and were able to use the service immediately after its final rollout.

Currently, more than 50 vendors utilize the Web-to-host technology to access Navarre's application. "We probably set a few more people up a week, each week," Casey elaborates. "Everyone's using, basically, the plug-in version." Casey and Alfarache are working on resolving an issue of the firewall interaction with the WMA product, in order to expand the use of the HTML conversion feature.

More Than Meets the Eye

Implementing Web-to-host technologies into its e-commerce Web site has given Navarre a competitive edge within their market. By providing vendors with direct access to its inventory-tracking application through a familiar and intuitive Web interface, Navarre is offering an easy and efficient way to check realtime inventory statistics. Vendors can readily determine if they need to replenish stock or contact a sales representative. Having access to the mainframe-based application through the Internet allows vendors to check inventory data whenever and from wherever they want to, without having to rely on availability of Navarre's staff. "They (vendors) don't have to get things faxed or e-mailed, and they can get the information themselves," comments Casey, "so a lot of them are really liking it."

In addition to end users, Navarre and its technical staff benefit from the Web-to-host technology. This implementation of Web-to-host automatically reduced staff costs, since it eliminated the need for manually replying to inquiries by copying and faxing data to vendors. For Casey, centralized administration and automatic updates make software deployment and maintenance easily manageable. He does not have to manually distribute and load updates on each user's machine. The administration module is accessible to him from any machine with a browser, from anywhere in the world. Navarre is able to use both applet-based emulation and automatic 3270-to-HTML conversion as complementary solutions to address different categories of users. Coming from the same developer, the Web-to-host product is fully compatible with the gateway accessing the mainframe.

What's Next?

As the company grows, Navarre foresees increasing the number of concurrent user licenses for accessing and emulating the mainframe application. With the assistance of WMA's Monitor console, Casey is able to determine if any vendors are being turned down due to lack of available connections. Additionally, Casey and Sjoberg are considering a future extension of the Web-to-host solution to Navarre's sales representatives, giving them access to the inventory application from the road or from home.

ICOM's Web-to-host software and SNA-type gateway have successfully given Navarre the opportunity to Web-enable its mainframe-based inventory application, while complementing its e-commerce strategy.

Anna Hunt can be reached via e-mail at ahunt@icominfo.com.