Scaling Up For Cyber Monday With IBM i
November 26, 2018 Alex Woodie
A fulfillment company that’s expected to process millions of transactions on an IBM i server today will lean heavily on a slim layer of RPG-based Web services technology to keep the commerce flowing for its large clients. But there’s nothing stopping the middleware, dubbed iWebSrv, from simplifying data integration for clients in other industries.
Retailers work all year to ensure they’re ready for the massive surge of traffic that springs up after Thanksgiving. For bricks-and-mortar types, Black Friday is their make-or-break day, while those with an omni-channel bent have Cyber Monday prominently circled on their calendars.
Consumers are expected to spend nearly $8 billion online today as the 2018 holiday shopping extravaganza kicks into high gear. By some estimates, retailers will conduct 40% of their business for the entire year over the next seven days, which some are looking to rechristen “Cyber Week.”
It will also be a very busy week for Radial, the fulfillment company behind retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ralph Lauren, and Estee Lauder. The King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, company owns about 13 million square feet of warehouse space across 26 distribution centers, where it stores its clients’ goods and processes ecommerce transactions initiated by their customers.
At the heart of Radial’s massive operation are a series of transactional systems that run on IBM i servers. Its warehouse management and order management systems are modified versions of applications that originated at JDA Software. Formerly called GSI Commerce, Radial was owned at one time by eBay, but it has since been sold to a European courier company called Belgian Post Group, or Bpost.
Radial is all about streamlining the back-end fulfillment processes for its client base. When a consumer visits the ecommerce website of one of Radial’s clients, they are unknowingly interacting with the company’s IBM i application. Actions such as putting an item into a shopping cart will trigger inventory lookups, while a check-out will trigger another series of transactions on the IBM i application to confirm the inventory is there and confirm the order.
Streamlining Order Fulfillment
With more than 100 clients, however, Radial was struggling to build and maintain all the connections between its clients front-end ecommerce website and its own IBM i back-end. Some clients uploaded transactions to Radial via FTP, while others used socket connections or XML. There was no single method used to initiate and complete transactions on Radial’s systems, which was a source of cost and concern for Radial.
Radial learned about a potential solution to the challenge in the form of iWebSrv, a Web services middleware product sold by e-PFR Technologies. iWebSrv is an RPG-based service program that links front-end systems that are exposed to the Internet with back-end systems that process transactions. In addition to protecting back-end IBM i resources from the Internet, the product also insulates developers from the vagaries of Web programming.
Matt Henderson, chief executive officer of e-PFR, had a hand in developing the original iWebSrv technology while working at West Marine, a multi-channel seller of marine products based in Watsonville, California.
Henderson worked with Larry Smith, executive vice president of planning and replenishment of Radial, who oversaw the overhaul of the company’s supply chain and logistical processes, which relied on IBM i technology. The new system was so successful that West Marine ended up winning an award from Stanford Graduate Business School.
According to Henderson, iWebSrv gives Radial a way to process transactions from customers via emerging Web services standards as opposed to creating one-off connections for every fulfillment client. That has helped the company standardize data integration methodologies while keeping one-off costs down.
“Whenever Radial had a new customer, they had to retool from scratch,” Henderson tells IT Jungle. “They would say, ‘Okay, how are we going to handle this? Are they going to FTP the order in? Are they going to batch then and send them in through a flat file? Are they coming in though MQ? Are we going to do an open socket?’
“It was always a different approach, a unique approach,” he continues. “And they said, if we can ever get to the Web and have a common approach in terms of XML or JSON, we’d be way ahead of the game.”
Web Service Automation
e-PFR was engaged by Radial (a.k.a., GSI Commerce and eBay Enterprise) to help modernize and optimize its systems. As part of that project, iWebSrv was implemented and enhanced and this new web services architecture allowed Radial to modernize and open up new business opportunities for their clients.
While some of Radial’s customers run IBM i ERP systems of their own, they don’t really care what IT systems Radial uses to fulfill orders. As long as the e-commerce customers can generate and send JSON transactions to Radial’s systems, the fulfillment house will take care of the rest.
Radial implemented iWebSrv on a series of front-end IBM i systems that receive Web orders from customers. The software does minimal pre-processing – just checking to ensure that the orders are formatted correctly – before passing the transactions to the back-end IBM i server that actually processes the inventory checks and submits the orders.
iWebSrv essentially acts as a courier for envelopes that aren’t opened until they reach the backend system, according to Henderson. Most of Radial’s customers have started using JSON over REST, which has become something of an industry standard, while a few continue to use XML.
“There are NEPs – never ending programs – on the backend system that will wait for that data, listen for it, such as an inventory inquiry,” he says. “It will seize the inventory request, get the information, put it on an outbound data queue. The front end is listening to the outbound data queue. It gets the response back and puts it on the Web. So what you end up with is a real-time process where you’re not opening and closing programs.
“It’s about as efficient as you can get.”
Efficiency At Scale
Radial processed 130 million real-time transactions in 2017, with one customer processing 500,000 transactions on Cyber Monday alone. In 2018, the company expects 300 million to 400 million transactions to flow through iWebSrv, Henderson says.
Radial operates one of the largest single IBM i LPARs on the planet, and it takes full advantage of the capacity on demand service from IBM to open up its Power Systems servers this time of year. For Radial, it’s all about efficiency at scale.
“To bring a new customer on or add a new API, you don’t have to take down a server. You don’t have to shut anything off or bring it back up,” Henderson says. “It turns out that it’s very fast and has worked very well for them. They’ve been very happy with that and their customers have as well.”
“iWebSrv acts as a highly efficient and adaptable middle layer between front-end and back-end systems,” says Joe Marx, the senior director of global shared services for Radial, in an e-PFR case study. “The plumbing is all there, making it easy for our developers to use it in whatever way we need to fulfill the rapidly changing requirements of our customers.”
The parameter-driven nature of iWebSrv means that Radial’s IBM i developers no longer need to worry about AJAX and infrastructure coding for front-end configurations, Marx continues.
“Because of this, our developers are able to focus significantly more time on important back-end development projects,” he says. “iWebSrv gives us a highly scalable platform upon which we can quickly turn around client requests for new interface functionality within their e-commerce and other systems.”
At Radial, the transactions are sent from the front-end to the back-end IBM i servers using data queues (iWebSrv can also support WebSphere MQ). There are only seven parameters that need to be passed to complete a transaction, including the application pointer, the queue control ID, the action, the transaction code, and inbound and outbound pointer and inbound length.
“It’s very simple,” Henderson says. “That’s all they have to do. iWebSrv takes care of the rest of it.”
e-PFR Technologies just put iWebSrv on the market in 2017. The Healdsburg, California-based company is involved with the intERPrise project, where it’s processing JSON generated from the backend RPG-based ERP system, and now it’s looking to ramp up its sales and marketing initiatives in hopes of capturing more market share.
“The value that this brings to most IBM shops is they don’t have to be able to spell Web. They really don’t,” Henderson says. “We take care of the complexity of the Web. The small and midsize business doesn’t have to know anything about an HTTP Server.”
Radial is e-PFR’s primary client so far, but there’s nothing stopping iWebSrv from being used in other industry settings besides retail, such as banking or insurance, Henderson says. Any company shop that’s looking to streamline how its existing IBM i systems interact with the Web could be a potential client.
“Today everything is about the Web, and you can see people struggling,” Henderson says. “You can see from the look in their eyes or the question they ask, they just can’t get their head around it. I don’t know if it’s too complicated or what, but it’s really a struggle for them, so we’re trying to simplify that as best we can.”
e-PFR is selling subscriptions to iWebSrv based on the number of transactions are processed. The company is also offering a cloud-based version of the product hosted on iInTheCloud. For more information, see the company’s website at www.iwebsrv.com.