PFSweb Launches XML Connector for Real-Time iSeries Transactions
by Alex Woodie
PFSWeb launched a new middleware product last week, called the iS Connector Toolkit, which exposes iSeries transactions, in real time, as XML. The company had sold the technology as part of an e-commerce software suite that it introduced this spring. But PFSweb, a publicly traded company whose day job is providing fulfillment services to Fortune 1000 manufacturers, discovered that iSeries shops were actually more interested in the XML connector.
PFSweb, which stands for Priority Fulfillment Services, has been an OS/400 shop from day one, since 1988. Today, the $280 million, Plano, Texas, company uses an iSeries server to run a highly modified version of PeopleSoft's World application, which it relies upon for managing its four fulfillment centers in Texas, Tennessee, Belgium, and Toronto. In addition to picking, packing, and shipping goods for customers like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Raytheon Aircraft Company, the company operates call centers, does application development work, and functions as a financial clearinghouse for its customers' transactions.
PFSweb launched the Windows- and OS/400-based GlobalMerchant CommerceWare e-commerce application in May at the spring 2004 COMMON conference in San Antonio (see "PFSweb Launches E-Commerce App for iSeries Shops"). The GlobalMerchant CommerceWare package pairs a Windows Server 2003- and SQL Server-based e-commerce engine with a set of tools and templates specifically designed for helping OS/400 shops extend the transactions powered by their RPG- or COBOL-based ERP applications to their e-commerce or business-to-business Web sites.
A number of OS/400 shops showed an interest in GlobalMerchant CommerceWare, says Richard Beasley, the sales manager for the GlobalMerchant CommerceWare line. In particular, they were interested in the middleware layer and APIs that used XML to link the Windows part of the application with the RPG and COBOL application logic on the back end, what the company calls the "secret ingredient" in GlobalMerchant CommerceWare.
"While we were discussing that piece of it, they said, 'Could you guys unbundle that piece of the software and sell it on a stand-alone basis?'" Beasley says. And that's exactly what PFSweb has done, with the iS Connector Toolkit.
The iS Connector resides on the OS/400 server and parses incoming XML transactions into externally defined data structures on the iSeries, PFSweb says. The software communicates with the iSeries via a couple of APIs that are inserted into the OS/400 application. On the iSeries side, the connector basically "speaks" fluent OS/400 COBOL or RPG, and the iSeries application sees the transactions as native green-screen I/O calls, and processes them in real time. On the Windows side, the Web site application sees nothing but XML and is shielded from the intricacies of enterprise application integration in an iSeries environment.
The iS Connector was not developed in a vacuum, and it reflects solid iSeries values, says PFSweb Chief Information Officer Michael Willoughby. "What we did not want to do is to reengineer our staff to learn new languages," such as Java, he says. "It looks exactly like a screen buffer. . .screen I/O on an iSeries server."
PFSweb has been using the iS Connector to connect its clients' e-commerce Web sites to its own ERP system or to other OS/400-based ERP systems since 2000. It is used by PFSweb's inhouse staff of 30 RPG programmers and several .NET developers. It is also quite scalable, and has shown itself capable of handling over a million transactions per hour, PFSweb says.
The iS Connector has many practical uses in e-commerce or B2B projects, the company says, including looking up product availability, prices, or order status; verifying addresses; calculating sales tax; tracking shipments; distributing POS updates; and generating online statements or applications. With iS Connector, PFSweb is enabling users to take these business processes that are defined in their COBOL or RPG logic and to extend them through the users' own Windows-based Web applications, rather than restricting them to using PFSweb's own GlobalMerchant CommerceWare software.
PFSweb is also positioning the iS Connector as a way to enable OS/400 applications for Web services. While the product already supports the translation of native I/O into XML, it lacks other components that are needed for true Web services, such as support for Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). However, Willoughby says the company is considering adding SOAP support in a future release of the product.
The iS Connector Toolkit is available now for a flat rate of $14,995. For more information, go to www.pfsweb.com.