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Secrets to a successful iSeries e-business

As with any business, there are keys to ensuring success. E-businesses are no exception. Lets look at those essential items you need to know to develop successful e-business projects.

Experience shows many IT departments do some of these very well, but other items can be overlooked on specific projects. Many of the "lessons learned" here are the result of a wide variety of e-business projects. Critical items to know include the following:

  • How to get a business sponsor
  • Where your e-business opportunities are
  • Where to find users
  • How to get the help you need
  • What your training options are
  • What J2EE application services are
  • How WDS tools can build applications
  • How to size your project challenges and options to your resources
  • How to match your project requirements to your skills
  • How to set low risk strategies
  • Where to go for more information

How to get a business sponsor
They call it e-business, not e-web. It's a business solution first, not a technical one. Projects are rarely successful without clear business value and sponsors. Sometimes when managers say: "We can't afford X for this project" (money for a new server, consulting help, better tools, etc.) they are really saying they can't spend much because they don't have clear knowledge and business commitment for specific e-business payoffs.

Often, building a valid business case and getting a committed business sponsor is the first step needed. The question is not what the project costs but what will it cost to get a clear business case and sponsor? That is really the first project deliverable. References of successful e-business projects usually won't do the trick. You'll need to solicit potential business sponsors to find the value for a project. They'll have to invest time to find payoffs and build a business case.

The real question is what is the smartest way to build a valid business case and get a committed sponsor? A "filtering" process can be used to look for projects and sponsors. When candidates are found, getting a real commitment often means a complete "mini" project -- business case, requirements, application design and working prototype to validate key features and risks. With newer e-business tools and project approaches, it's often possible to do this for a fixed (an affordable) price on a short schedule. You may need outside help to get it done quickly and affordably. Think of this as an insurance payment on your real e-business project. Think of this as a prototype and that most of your work will be thrown away when you start the real project. One customer said: "We never do real projects. We only put our prototypes into production." Not a good idea.

Where your e-business opportunities are
Defining the business case begins with knowing your specific e-business opportunities. Start by understanding what the current operations priorities are for your business. It's where you begin to find sponsors and business cases. The general list of potential e-business impacts is only a starting point to finding specific values in your company.

Potential e-business opportunities include the following:

  • business survival
  • lower costs of operation with Web integration
  • increased sales
  • greater employee, customer satisfaction
  • better supply-chain coordination
  • better, more timely information for decisions
  • higher reuse of resources
  • faster cycle times for business transactions
  • new business services
  • new business products
  • increased customer and partner loyalty

You'll need to define a valid project in several ways with things such as

  • clear business payoffs
  • e-business technology that you can implement successfully
  • application solutions that users can use well
  • properly defined scope for the initial phases and deliverables

Where to find users
IT can deliver projects, applications, services, etc. They turn into business value only when users actually use the new solutions to produce results. E-business projects aren't going to succeed without users committed (vs. involved) throughout the project process. We've seen some projects where IT says they don't have users available to work on the projects. It's usually a case where we haven't done the proper business case and sponsorship. In response to "we don't have any users available for the project", threats to "kidnap" users may help make the point for commitment. Key factors here are getting clear business value first and allocating added resources to backfill users assigned project duties.

How to get the help you need
If your IT organization is new to e-business projects, you'll need to get help -- lots of real help in many cases. Surfing IBM's and other companies Web sites, reading articles, attending e-business seminars and swiping nifty handouts from a COMMON presentation are only starting points. Get experienced advice from multiple sources, such as IBM technical resources, iSeries e-business consultants, iSeries e-business information resources.

On the IBM side, good, specific help is usually billable either by the hour or under a support plan. Separate tips from marketing folks who are selling specific solutions from real technical answers directed at your specific problems. While MQ is a very useful product in the right situation, I wish I had a dollar every time it was incorrectly specified as part of an e-business solution by IBM or a consultant who didn't know better.

There are many e-business consultants to choose from. There are even a good number that have specific iSeries expertise, which usually turns out to be key for success. Many good "generic" consultants have proposed solutions that are valid on other platforms but are too costly in time and money on the iSeries because they don't know the specific advantages available here. We have "J2EE++" on iSeries -- all the benefits of J2EE and more. Look to portal Web sites, articles by e-business consultants, etc. to identify potential consultants.

For general iSeries e-business information, look to resources such as IBM iSeries technical Web sites, IBM WebSphere Developer Domain, search400, the400Group.com, iSeries News and other companies focused specifically on the iSeries e-business marketplace. Look to user groups (iSeries, WebSphere, COMMON, etc) that can provide information from other iSeries shops that have faced the same challenges and succeeded.

Remember, if it's cancer or iSeries e-business, you'll want a second opinion. Compare ideas from more than one source.

What your training options are
Yes, you want some generic e-business technology training as an IT department to build in-house knowledge. Training in a vacuum can be unproductive. Try to make real training pay off by focusing on a specific project opportunity. Get help identifying your real training needs for potential projects. Look for a consultant to do a short, custom technology planning seminar where the goal is to review a few potential e-business use cases in your company and present an overview of relevant e-business technologies and frameworks that can support the use cases. Hopefully this targeted planning leads to more specific projects and technology focal points.

Remember, you have multiple training sources here: downloadable technical manuals and tutorials from IBM, Sun and other sites, online classes, online forums like search400, traditional classroom training, custom on-site classes, Internet-based classes and focused project mentoring.

The IBM iSeries Web site can point you toward IBM education options. Other iSeries e-business sites mentioned above can get you in touch with other trainers and mentors for iSeries e-business.

What J2EE application services are
Yes, you want to know more about WebSphere, Apache, Tomcat and all these other technologies. First you should understand what the J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) application model is, what its benefits are and how applications can be designed to leverage the model well. Sun, IBM and others offer good basic information. (See Javasoft or WebSphere Developer Domain.)

The J2EE model defines the services that are available to applications to simplify development and runtime issues. Knowing what the services are and which ones you should use for a given need are critical. Many customers have used a particular feature of the iSeries Java toolbox or built their own without knowing the service was provided free as a standard part of the J2EE runtime. Whatever runtime and development tools you focus on, most will implement support for the J2EE standard application services. You should be able to ask what J2EE services a tool or product supports and what level.

How WDS tools can build applications
From my perspective, e-business on the iSeries is better than standard e-business elsewhere. We have all the advantages of Java, J2EE runtime and development tools that other platforms have. We also have the additional advantages of a large, reusable set of custom application components for e-business that are well tested (your existing RPG and COBOL applications). We also have IBM WebSphere Development Studio for iSeries, which has many tools that radically drive down the cost and time to learn and build e-business solutions through application generation and customization wizards.

You will save a lot of time and money if you understand how to use the tools for your specific development challenges first. I also wish I had a dollar for every customer who said I used X tool because I read about it or talked to a consultant or an IBM rep and then discovered Y a year later. Now they are retraining staff to start using Y. Get good information early on for ALL the tools available in WDS.

How to size your project challenges and options to your resources
You will have lots of challenges to address in e-business projects, many of which are also common to other IT projects (see the list below). You need to identify how to build a strategy to address the challenges given your specific e-business use cases and resources. General-purpose books and articles are a start only. At some point, you must create a specific strategy for your e-business use cases.

Challenges can include the following:

  • Planning a Web app for new users and use cases
  • Creating Web apps that are intuitive; easy to use, simple to learn
  • Creating Web apps that are easy to maintain and deploy
  • Dealing with complex Web application configuration and tuning
  • Reusing and integrating existing iSeries database and applications
  • Dealing with distributed development & deployment issues
  • Working with rapid development schedules for Web apps
  • Working with Limited funds for new Web apps
  • Not knowing what the payback is for Web apps
  • Understanding the user learning curve for Web applications
  • Learning new skills for engineering, architecture, design, build, test, deploy
  • Dealing with rapid changes in e-business technology

How to match your project requirements to your skills
Try to match three items: a development use case, your organization skills and resources and a development strategy. It helps to specify development use cases such as WebFace an existing 5250 application, provide Web data query, create a Web service for an existing host application, create a new Java Web application for new users, etc. Be realistic about your current in-house skills. If you plan to use consultants, you can add their skill sets to your "base." Pick a development strategy that matches the first two items using the IBM WDS tools.

Don't decide to do your first e-business project using advanced Java frameworks if your staff doesn't have strong J2EE skills or you don't have access to good iSeries J2EE consultants. Use tools and techniques that can simplify and automate application development and deployment while giving up some of the longer-term benefits of these advanced frameworks initially. Look at simple generation tools and wizards in WebFacing and WebSphere Studio as starting points to create Java Web applications and provide Java Web data access.

Of course you will need training if you are doing the work in-house, but the learning curve for these tools is MUCH shorter than full J2EE development.

How to set low risk strategies

1. Optionally outsource development and deployment of your first e-business application to experts. The IT staff can train and pick up support responsibilities for the first application solution without costing the business time, money and rework for slow and unproductive startup projects. IT gets credit for an e-business success in your company without the challenges of delivering the first e-business project technically.

2. Identify how to deliver Java Web applications WITHOUT writing Java code. Yes, you want to learn Java. No, your business shouldn't have to wait for e-business applications until you learn it. Use WebFacing and Studio to generate Java applications BEFORE you learn the Java language. Get outside help to write the few custom Java beans you may need for a project. You can do much of the work for WebFacing and Studio in-house with very short training classes.

3. Get deployment help. You may want to consider having an outside firm run your application (e.g., an ASP for WebSphere or Tomcat). Otherwise, get outside help for initial setup and configuration of your Java Web application server infrastructure at your company. Some customers so far have succeeded without using either option for deployment. Are you one of the better iSeries shops operationally with good e-business infrastructure skills?

Where to go for more information

IBM iSeries e-business site IBM WebSphere Development Studio for iSeries
IBM WebSphere Developer Domain
Sun Javasoft -- Java education, software site
Logisil Inc. -- iSeries e-business training, service
COMMON user group for iSeries users
iSeries Nation -- IBM iSeries user group
ebt-now.com -- iSeries WebFacing, Studio, Java

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About the author: Jim is president of ebt-now.com, an IBM and Lotus business partner focused on delivering e-business application solutions for iSeries 400 customers. Jim writes, consults, teaches, designs and develops iSeries Web applications using Java, WebSphere, DB2, Lotus Domino and the WebSphere Development Tools for the iSeries.

This was first published in November 2001

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