Manhattan Keeps Commitment Strong to System i Products
December 15, 2009 Alex Woodie
Companies that use Manhattan Associates‘ popular Warehouse Management System (WMS) for the IBM i OS will soon be able to expose RPG-based business logic to customers and suppliers over the Web. While the batch of 30 or so Web services in the 2010 release marks the introduction of the new technology in WMi, Manhattan has aggressive plans to continue imbuing the supply chain product with cutting-edge technology well into the future.
When it comes to managing the flow of inventory in and out of warehouses and distribution centers, few products have a reputation as solid as Manhattan Associates’ original application: WMi (formerly PkMS). Today more than 500 companies around the world rely on WMi to manage their global product distribution operations–including a good chunk of the country’s 100 largest retailers with names such as Staples, Dick’s Sporting Goods, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Costco, Foot Locker, Gamestop, Nordstrom, and Williams Sonoma.
Despite the reputation as a “best of breed” WMS, there have been questions about Manhattan’s commitment to the product and the platform. When Manhattan talks more about its Windows and Unix products and development in Java and Microsoft .NET, it fosters a perception that they have forgotten their roots on the platform formerly known as AS/400.
But officials with Manhattan Associates insist the company isn’t disregarding its legacy. Yes, as the $337-million company from Atlanta, Georgia, has grown, it has attempted to capitalize upon its strong position in supply chain execution by expanding into supply chain planning and other areas. And yes, because it is not yet a large and established player in these other supply chain disciplines, the bulk of marketing dollars goes to driving demand in these new areas.
But no, that doesn’t mean WMi or other System i-based products–such as the Transportation Execution or Replenishment–have fallen in importance at Manhattan Associates, says Jeff Gantt, the company’s product manager for WMi.
“We are still very much dedicated to IBM i,” Gantt said in a recent phone interview. “We have quite a large R&D department, and we keep chugging away. Our customers are not moving away from the platform. But they’re starting to see there are benefits to these other solutions, and they can deploy and leverage them in addition to still keeping their core WMi solution without having to move to an open systems-based application or a Windows solution.”
On the eve of the 2010 release of WMi, Gantt is preparing to share his latest three-year product roadmap with customers. He provided IT Jungle with a rundown of new features in the 2010 release, as well as the types of enhancements that R&D is working on for future releases.
The introduction of about 30 Web services will enable WMi Release 2010 users to expose core processes to their customers and partners, without doing a lot of low-level integration work or programming.
Gantt expects the new Freight Rating Request Web service will prove particularly popular. It will be quite useful if a customer service representative (CSR) receives a phone call from a customer who wants to know the difference in cost for shipping an item using overnight service or regular ground delivery, he says.
“As long as I have certain data elements–in this case, order, SKU, quantity, and where to ship and where from–I can go out and leverage existing Manhattan WMi rate shopping engines to determine how much it’s going to cost me to ship that product from the warehouse to the customer’s house,” Gantt says.
The benefit to the company is CSRs do not need to be logged into WMi to get that information. They can get the data through any route that supports Web services, including pulling it up in a Web browser, viewing it through a composite application, or even accessing it via another application that supports Web services, such as SAP‘s ERP or CRM software.
Other Web services are centered on execution-related tasks, such as closing a load, printing a parcel manifest, calling the waiving process, recalling inventory, and various other shipment inquiry services. Manhattan Associates’ Web services are based on XML and Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs) and require the use of a Java-based Web application server, such as WebSphere.
“We did a little bit of work to actually connect and leverage the XML that gets generated from the external system, and pass that data into the RPG existing business logic to perform those updates and respond back with the data elements that the Web service requires,” says Gantt, who plans to add about 30 additional Web services to the product every year.
User interface enhancements round out the two other major areas of improvement. Today, WMi is strictly a green-screen application. The company used to offer a GUI version, but it ended its partnership with screen modernization vendor Seagull Software and its JWalk product for this product several years ago because of low demand, Gantt says (although it still offers the Seagull GUI for Replenishment for i).
With the 2010 release, Manhattan gives users the capability to customize the layout of their green screens–including the order and position of fields on their 5250 displays. Customers can pick and choose which data elements they want to see on the screen, and customized screens can be created for entire user groups or even individual users.
“We’ve implemented WMS across multiple verticals–food, retail, consumer goods, e-commerce–and every one has different requirements over what data elements they use to control their operations within the WMS,” Gantt says.
While the green screen will always be available, in the long term, the product roadmap calls for WMi to borrow the GUI that was originally written for in Java Server Faces (JSF). That plan is part of the product roadmap, and a release date is not yet known.
A new graphical executive dashboard is also in the cards for WMi Release 2010. The dashboard’s aim is to give managers a graphical view into the activities at one or more warehouses or distribution centers, without requiring them to log in and navigate a 5250 interface.
The executive dashboard is delivered as a Web portal that’s composed of various Web portlets that graphically depict the data that WMi stores in DB2/400. Pre-configured portlets are available for common activities in the warehouse, including inbound arrivals and outbound fulfillment; inventory management; order processing; accounting; orders in progress; and open shipments. The dashboard, which was originally developed for Manhattan Associates’ open systems-based WMS, called WM for Open Systems, requires knowledge of SQL to implement, but no low-level programming. The dashboard is available with any Manhattan SCOPE (Supply Chain Optimization Planning through Execution) product.
The executive dashboard that’s shared by WMi, WM for Open Systems, and the .NET-based WMS, Manhattan SCALE (Supply Chain Architected for Logistics), is a good example of how Manhattan Associates’ product development will look in the future.
“Moving forward, we’re looking at trying to leverage and reuse common components across supply chain solutions,” Gantt says. “We don’t want our IBM i solution to sit off in their own islands. We want them to participate with these other solutions, regardless of the technology stack and whether it’s written in RPG or Java or C++. The IBM i solutions will very much be participating in this plan going forward.”
Much of Manhattan Associates’ strategic development (read: every product besides the tried-and-true warehouse management systems) is taking place in Java, and does not target i OS. For example, Distributed Order Management (DOM), which is used by customers with multiple distribution centers to determine the optimum way to ship products, was written in Java and is primarily run on Unix. The company also sells a business intelligence product called Supply Chain Intelligence that’s built on IBM’s Cognos. It runs on AIX and the Oracle database.
While these products don’t run natively on the System i platform, Manhattan Associates is leveraging the fact that i OS and AIX can co-exist peacefully next to each other on Power Systems hardware to minimize the complexity for customers.
“Most of our customers who roll out WMi also utilize these other solutions,” Gantt says. “The thought is, with IBM moving further and further down the road of being technology agnostic and offering multiple technology stacks on the Power box, we thought it’s a great opportunity for our customer to be able to leverage multiple solutions, that may be running on multiple technology stacks, and deploy them on the same box, using the same storage, memory, and processor pools. We completed that testing [with IBM] mid September.”
This approach is welcomed by Manhattan Associates’ bigger customers–those that have lots of in-house experience with Unix and the Oracle database. But some of the “true blue” types buck a little at the thought of introducing other technology stacks, particularly Unix. “There are some hard-core IBM i customers out there who would prefer everything to be RPG-based,” Gantt says. “But I think they understand. It’s more of a strategic decision from a Manhattan Associates’ perspective, to create these solutions on these other various technology stacks.”
But that does not take away from the fact that Manhattan Associates has made large investments in RPG, and keeps a large number of RPG programmers on the payroll.
“We’re thinking about the future for IBM i,” Gantt says. “We’re not shutting down operations. We’re not moving resources around. We’re very much committed to the product. At the end of the day it’s important for customer to see that investment in R&D dollars.”
This article was corrected. Jeff Gantt’s name was misspelled, and several WMi customers were misidentified. The names of various Manhattan Associates products were also clarified. IT Jungle regrets the errors.