Everyone is talking about Web-enabling systems, but
what does it mean? Microsoft Front Page makes designing sites simple, but how can you hook
access to a legacy application into the front page quickly to deliver business critical
information? For any company (user or reseller) looking to capitalise on the burgeoning
e-business market, one of the key questions is how easily and quickly can I derive
business benefit without huge investments in skills, and without re-engineering any of my
existing business systems? Simply put: speed and simplicity are the watchwords.
A typical example is business-to-business e-commerce. A telecommunications company
provides products and services to a number of resellers. The resellers are skilled at what
they do delivering products and services to the customer. They are used to
fulfilling the customers requirements. They know how to order what they need from
the telco. They understand how to navigate the telcos accounts, purchasing and
engineering departments. They use the telephone and fax to order products from the telco,
check the status of orders, request new documentation and book engineers. But it all takes
This scenario is a classic example of where a business-to-business e-commerce system
should provide real benefit. An extranet that enabled the reseller to order products,
check the status of orders, access documentation and book engineers would save time and
money. The telco could free up its order processing and technical staff from constantly
answering the phone. The reseller could get the information it needed quickly and easily.
In short, the extranet would help to shrink the supply chain, improve productivity and
increase sales.The problem of course, is that presenting the reseller with access to the
telcos order processing and engineer booking systems is not an option. Especially as
these are frequently green screen applications running on IBM mainframe or AS/400 systems.
Leaving aside the security implications, even if you could take an AS/400 screen and slap
it in a Web browser and deliver it to a reseller, you would need to train and educate the
reseller in how to run your business application a costly and time-consuming process.
From the telcos perspective, the secret lies in re-examining its core technical
competencies and looking at what will deliver the fastest, easiest solution. In our
example scenario, the telco will be highly competent in the use of its AS/400 business
system. Chances are, it will also have experience of some of the basic building blocks of
the Web particularly HTML and may well be familiar with tools such Microsoft
FrontPage (for basic page design) and Microsoft Visual InterDev (for more advanced code
development and management). Given its expertise with the core business system (AS/400)
and Microsoft/Web technologies (FrontPage, HTML, browsers, Windows NT Server, etc.), what
is the quickest, easiest way to shrink the supply chain?
Clearly, the answer is not to invest heavily in a major development project that requires
extensive knowledge of new environments and languages, e.g. Java, C++, etc. to
program a solution. Better to target the investment in ensuring that the
design and ergonomics of the extranet reflect the very best company image. After all, the
best e-business sites have had thousands invested in the design and ergonomics and
it shows! The best approach would be to find a way of giving the reseller access to a
secure Web site, designed using a product like Microsoft FrontPage. This would give it the
option to place and track orders, access documentation and book engineers. The site would
be pure Microsoft but invisible to the reseller the raw data would be pure
AS/400. All the reseller would need would be a Web browser on its desktop, access to the
Internet and a password.
In fact, there are products on the market today that allow you to open up a corridor from
within a Microsoft FrontPage-authored Web site and access a mainframe or AS/400
application. They are often called host-publishing products and their
simplicity is their real appeal. The best of these products can be called seamlessly from
within FrontPage and Visual InterDev and they are a godsend to any e-business developer.
The best products make use of Microsofts Active Server Pages to run server side
scripts from Windows NT. Active Server Pages is an open, compile-free application
environment in which you can combine HTML, scripts, and reusable ActiveX server components
to create dynamic and powerful Web-based business solutions. Active Server Pages enables
server side scripting for IIS with native support for both VBScript and Jscript.
Using FrontPage, you can embed design-time ActiveX controls to call an Active Server Page
and execute scripts to get the necessary data from the AS/400 system. The results are
pretty impressive. In fact, given the levels of expertise weve discussed here, you
could have a prototype up and running in minutes. Speed and simplicity guaranteed!
Next month well continue by looking at precisely how you could use Active Server
Pages, design time controls and FrontPage to shrink this particular supply chain.