Bringing Communications up to Network Speed

Novell needed to send customers formatted sales documents worldwide via e-mail or fax; it found the answer in StreamServe's Business Communications Platform.

Centralizing IT functions creates a lot of efficiencies for a company, but it can also lead to problems. At least, that's the case according to Novell. The company has sales representatives in dozens of countries, but its worldwide invoicing comes out of only two locations, and snail mail was just too slow to meet customer needs.

"We would send customers in South America invoices offering them a discount if they paid within 10 days," says Novell developer Jim Moore, "but by the time they received the invoice it was too late to take advantage of the discount."

Similar problems existed with purchase-order confirmations and sales-order acknowledgements, and it impaired corporate image. In this day and age, people expect a billion-dollar company selling networking products to work at network speed. Novell, therefore, embarked on a project to set up its operations so that all customer-related documents could be sent instantly via fax or e-mail.

The company first used software from SigForms, a San Jose, Calif.-based firm purchased by StreamServe in November 1999. Novell found the product was too cumbersome to program and lacked the ability to e-mail documents. "No one was comfortable with SigForms," says Moore. "If we wanted to add new reports and features it was too complicated and cumbersome, so we would have to hire consultants to come in every time we wanted to make a change."

In 2000, Novell ran a pilot to test the capabilities of StreamServe's Business Communications Platform. StreamServe pulls information from a company's Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Supply Chain Management (SCM) or other types of existing applications. It works with 21 different ERP packages including programs from Oracle, Baan, SAP, PeopleSoft, IFS, Movex and QAD.

StreamServe puts extracted data into the necessary format to send to customers or suppliers. Depending on how a firm wants to communicate, there are numerous output options. For direct exchange of information between databases, for example, it provides the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and Extensible Markup Language (XML) formats. For wireless transmissions, it supports Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and Short Messaging System (SMS). It will create a Portable Document Format (.pdf) or file, send a fax or e-mail, generate an HTML document or put it into the format needed for a particular application the firm uses.

Novell wanted to have the option of either faxing or e-mailing a document, but opted to set up the e-mail functions first. For the initial test, Moore set it up to e-mail a sales-order confirmation. The StreamServe server was set up at a facility in San Jose, Calif., to communicate with the Oracle database in Provo, Utah. It didn't work. After investigating, Moore determined that the routers were filtering out information. So he moved the StreamServe box into the same data center as the database, which worked. From there it was just a matter of setting up the IP addresses, printer queues and other technical details. The test was then a success and the process took off from there.

From an end-user viewpoint, e-mailing a file is the same as printing out a hard copy. After entering the sales data, the user tells Oracle to "print" the document and selects "e-mail" as the printer. Oracle then sends the data over to StreamServe, which formats it and sends it to the site's e-mail server.

In addition to sending out sales-order acknowledgements, Moore has set up the system to send out purchase orders and invoices. Different versions of each of the documents exist for Novell's domestic and international customers, as well as for its subsidiary Cambridge Technology Partners and Volera, a Content Delivery Network (CDN) firm founded last year by Novell, Nortel Networks and Accenture. The documents for each of the firms are generally in the same format; logos and other details differ.

"As [with] any business, we continually change, merge and purchase other companies," says Moore. "We just bought a new company called SilverStream Software, so I'm sure I will be asked to make an invoice for them as well."

To set up a new document, Moore remotely accesses the StreamServe server using Netopia Inc.'s Timbuktu software. Typically it takes him one to two days, but one particularly complex invoice for Cambridge Technology required ODBC queries and multiple print queues, and took nearly a month.

Although Novell hasn't started using StreamServe's fax function yet, it's making good use of e-mailing, sending out over 10,000 messages last month. In addition to setting up faxing, Moore has requests to set up additional documents for the purchasing department.

"You don't want to tell too many people what you can do with the product," he warns. "Otherwise they keep asking you to do more."

Details: Novell Inc.

Team Leader: Jim Moore

Organization: Novell Inc.

Location: Provo, Utah

Web Site:

Goal: To be able to send out formatted sales documents (Purchase Orders, Invoices, acknowledgements, etc.) to customers worldwide via e-mail or fax rather than having to print out and mail the documents.

Scope: 10,000+ documents being sent electronically to customers monthly.

Equipment/Platform: Sales information resides in an Oracle database running on Unix residing on a 12-way Hewlett-Packard 9000 V250 with 12GB RAM. Connects to Gigabit Ethernet through a Cisco 6500 switch. StreamServe sits on a Compaq ProLiant DL380 G2 with a single 1266MHz processor, 1.28GB RAM and mirrored 18.6GB hard drives running Windows 2000. It has a 100Megabit Ethernet connection and links through a Nortel switch to the Gigabit Ethernet.

Solution: Set up the system to e-mail documents. When a user wants to send a document to a customer, he or she simply selects "e-mail" as the printer.

Interoperability Issues: Initially the StreamServe server was set up in San Jose, Calif., while the Oracle database was at the main data center in Provo, Utah. The router between them was dropping out information. StreamServe was moved to a server at the main datacenter and the problem ceased.

Milestones: After initial training and set up, took four days working with employees from StreamServe to get the product live. Document set-up takes from 1 to 2 days up to several weeks (for a very complicated document).

Results: Now sends over 10,000 documents monthly via e-mail rather than snail mail.

Future Challenges: Setting up to e-mail documents for Novell's new acquisition, SilverStream Software Inc. Adding fax capability. Setting up to e-mail additional types of documents.

About the Author

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology reporting.