Shipshape E-business

A shipping company shows how to deploy vastly different solutions for two audiences—Web-based and green-screen—through a single environment.

Right up through the 1960s, the U.S. military used trans-oceanic ships to transport troops and their families to overseas stations. My father was in the Army at the time, and our family crossed the North Atlantic on two occasions to posts in Germany, both times in the dead of winter. It was both exciting and stomach-churning as the ship crashed through constant storms.

Even today, storms and other factors make predicting ship arrivals an inexact science. That means data that tracks ship movements is golden, especially if your business depends on it. A recent Web-based service, launched by Americana Ships of Tampa, Fla., makes vital data about port arrivals accessible to Internet users. The Web site employs Web-to-host technology that sends host data to a separate Web server.

What makes this deployment particularly noteworthy is the fact that the same solution has been deployed in two different ways, for two different audiences—Web audiences and a green-screen user base. I recently had the opportunity to speak with e-business managers at Americana Ships, now a unit of Canadian Pacific’s CP Ships, who explained how and why this was done. Americana’s multi-faceted deployment of Web to host shows that even within one company, there are many ways the same technology can be used to serve different audiences.

Green-Screen Extension
Americana maintains a far-flung network of agents concentrated in East Asia and Latin America who provide documentation for large volumes of trans-oceanic cargo shipped around the globe. Until recently, these agents used dial-up access to log into the company’s central host system in Tampa, Fla. However, the arrangement was expensive—the company had to ship client software to each user, and local phone companies charged by the minute for dial-up access.

The company considered moving to a virtual private network infrastructure, but would have had to install routers and firewalls at agents’ locations. The VPN idea called for a commitment of time and resources to networks that weren’t directly under Americana’s control, says Jamie Katz, project leader for Americana. Another consideration was the frequency with which the company changed partners. "As with any industry, business relationships change very quickly," Katz says. "While in the midst of engineering solutions for these agencies, we’d be changing relationships."

What the shipping agents needed was a simple way to log into the host, enter booking information and print bills of lading. The company considered a standard Web site, but dismissed the idea. "These agents didn’t need access to internal resources other than the host," says Katz. "They didn’t need e-mail, or file and print sharing or access to our corporate network."

Instead, Web to host began to look appealing. In implementing HostFront from Farabi Technology (based in Montreal), the only requirement for the end user shipping agents was an Internet connection and a browser, which most had. "We found a way to quickly deploy connectivity over a public infrastructure, without the need for a fat client," Katz explains. "If we stop doing business with a partner, all we have to do is simply disable their account."

Presentation is still over a green screen. "Agents were familiar with the green screen," Katz says. "We didn’t want to push too much at them at once." He adds that the company has reduced its support costs through centralized management, software distribution and version control.

E-Commerce Effort
Americana’s e-commerce department, in a separate effort, has also been able to extract host-based data for integration into a public Web site that allows users to track ship departures and arrivals. The company’s host-based shipping data is formatted as XML files and cached on the Web server. The XML cache is refreshed every few minutes, says Ray Hudaihed, e-commerce architect with Americana. The resulting system, built from Farabi’s HostFront Server in COM, is similar to the solution offered by UPS for tracking packages. There are a few notable exceptions, Hudaihed says. "In the shipping business, if we get a hurricane or bad weather, schedules change. Ports get realigned, and new schedules are recreated from scratch. We get a lot of exceptions. It’s not like UPS, which owns the flights and can keep flying airplanes between continents, and [keep] everything relatively consistent."

Integration of back-end host data took about two months, but the actual implementation took just a couple of days, Hudaihed says. "There were a few things that we had to do in the middle," he explains. "We had to get all the information, write a lot of the scripts and build some of the components on our end to go ahead and extract information on the host side. On the back end, [the system] combines not only hooks into the vessel but the schedules themselves. The vessel schedules get generated from different information coming from different databases and different modules on the host—from customer service, the people who do the documentation and the folks who do the booking."

The site, which receives about 5,000 hits a day, tracks ship movements across the globe. Initial users were from within the company, but there is a growing base of users from outside the firm as well, Hudaihed says. Typically, these are Americana’s business partners or customers, but the public site is accessible to anyone on the Web. "Ship schedules are pretty important to everybody in this business. They’ve got to know when their shipment of cars—or whatever they’re shipping—is going to be due in port."

Many companies are wrestling with ways to open up mainframe and midrange data to the Web, and all too often, end up duplicating efforts by building or buying entirely separate solutions. As Americana’s experience demonstrates, it’s possible to deploy vastly different solutions through a single environment.

About the Author

Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research, and white papers.