Boise Cascade Gets ‘m-Powered’ with mrc Reporting Tool
September 25, 2007 Alex Woodie
The word came down from Boise Cascade’s management in May like a ton of pulp: Develop a sophisticated Web-based reporting system that interfaces with multiple host systems, and do it in three weeks. For the folks on BC’s application development team, that deadline seemed next to impossible to meet. However, despite being short a developer, the group persevered and managed to meet its deadline, with a little help from the mrc development tool, m-Power.
Based in Boise, Idaho, Boise Cascade manufacturers a variety of wood products, including plywood, lumber, particleboard, paper, newsprint, and pulp. The company, which employs 10,000 people, also operates a fleet of trucks, vans, and trailers used to distribute its products and equipment around the country. While BC’s trucking division was successful, a competing trucking firm had surpassed it in one area: Web-based reporting. As a result, company management decided it needed a Web-based reporting system that was at least as good, if not better than its competitor’s.
BC already had a load-tracking product, the i5/OS-based Add On Systems Web’n’Transit, which worked closely with the division’s IES dispatching system from Innovative Computing, which also runs on the AS/400. While it did a good job tracking the loads, Add On’s product didn’t offer the flexibility and capability to make customizations that BC needed, says Stan Brewer, an application development leader with BC.
“We needed reporting abilities that allowed users to go in and select any report criteria they wanted, and pull up the specifics of these loads,” Brewer says. “We also needed to be able to report that via HTML or via Excel. The director, in particular, does everything in Excel. Those were really the two big requirements.”
BC, like many large companies, prefers the safety of buying prepackaged products rather than developing stuff from scratch. With that said, the company had reached the limits that its prepackaged reporting product could provide to some of its users and customers. With the clock ticking, Brewer was pressured to find a reporting tool that was customizable, but that could also generate results quickly.
Lynn Skinner, a developer working for Brewer, was the first to spot m-Power, a menu-driven development tool that generate Java servlets, XML, and HTML. The heritage of the product, which was introduced in 2004, is tightly tied to mrc-Productivity Series, the RPG-generating fourth-generation language (4GL) development tool that mrc has been developing for the IBM AS/400 line of computers for more than 20 years. Unlike mrc-Productivity Series, m-Power can be deployed from any number of platforms, including i5/OS, Windows, Unix, and Linux, and supports all the major databases, including DB2/400, Oracle, DB2 UDB, Microsoft SQL Server, and MySQL.
The product looked promising, so Brewer contacted mrc, and a demo using generic data was set up. Then another demo was set up using the company’s data, and several meetings with BC manages were also set up. According to Brewer, in all those meetings and demos, mrc never failed to show up and impress the viewers with the ease of development using the tool. With a purchase price in the low tens of thousands of dollars–a steal compared to the big-name business intelligence product used in another BC division–Brewer got the sign-off, and was off and running with m-Power.
After a week of training, an mrc developer arrived at BC’s Boise headquarters to help Brewer and Skinner with developing the actual reporting applications. After a full week of development work, the first Web-based reporting applications had been hammered out, and m-Power was serving up Java servlet-powered HTML pages that gave BC’s users the real-time access to the load data they needed.
BC’s new application runs on a Windows box equipped with the open-source Tomcat Java application server (which mrc recommends running instead of WebSphere). The application generates highly optimized SQL statements that are executed on the AS/400-based dispatching application located in Boise. Those SQL statements are also executed against a Windows-based SQL Server database handling pulp deliveries based in BC’s DeRidder, Louisiana, pulp mill. All told, these two systems track between 500 and 600 trucks delivering a variety of products across the continent every day.
The m-Power application joins the data from these two systems in real-time, and presents the results either graphically on a Web page, or textually in an Excel spreadsheet. In either case, users can drill down into the reports to get details on specific loads. Equipped with this information, salesmen, managers, and owner/operators working with BC can quickly get detailed information on the status of their deliveries.
Brewer and company met the three-week deadline, gaining applause from people in management. “They are very, very pleased. I’ve received numerous positive feedback from every manager involved, saying that it’s just outstanding,” Brewer says.
The trucking project was so successful that another BC division has started its own m-Power project. The transportation group, which is responsible for shipping BC’s products by rail and cargo containers, is starting to use m-Power to track deliveries that are dispatched from a mainframe-based application. In this case, m-Power is responsible for pulling data from millions of records in real time. By comparison, the trucking division’s m-Power implementation is “only” handling hundreds of thousands of records per day.
Brewer was struck with the ease-of-use of the m-Power tool. “It’s extremely intuitive,” he says. “I did not have to learn Java to get this deployed. I’m an old RPG programmer, and all it requires is knowledge of your database. That was the big thing for me.”
Brewer was also impressed with how easily it handled the SQL Server database. “The date formats on the SQL Server are totally different than anything we have on the AS/400. I didn’t have to create any conversion programs for all these various dates. With m-Power came all these conversion tools. I just loved that,” he says.
The performance of m-Power also made an impression. Brewer has reservations about the impact that m-Power’s generated SQL statements might have on BC’s older AS/400 Model 720. Those fears turned out to be unfounded. “Even though it’s polling huge amounts of data from the AS/400, there’s no impact,” he says. The product reliably generates reports for about 60 users in under five seconds.
The future is bright for m-Power at BC. Now that he has some experience with it, Brewer foresees the tool becoming a valuable part of the division’s initiative to modernize its legacy applications. First up? Some 5250 maintenance screens that may be better served as Web pages.
Whatever the future may bring, Brewer always has the memory of those stressful three weeks in late spring, coming out of them successful, and helping the company compete. “It’s already made us a lot more efficient,” he says. “It’s accomplishing a lot here. It’s also providing management a lot of tools, where they’re getting the information they need much quicker. It’s just saving them a lot of headaches.”