Portable databases for MVP!

Tuesday Sep 19th 2000 by Neil Plotnick
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The growing power and memory capacity of personal digital assistants allow users to take along not just data, but entire databases with them.

John Simon, VP, business development, Braxton Butterfield

While the NBA's Chicago Bulls and the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks were thrilling fans last season with battles on their home court at The United Center sports arena, the arena's management and the memorabilia vendors they contract with faced struggles of their own off the court.

Inventory management was out of control. To begin with, more goods were often delivered than ordered. Keeping track of the T-shirts, pennants, caps, and other memorabilia the arena's vendors sell from booths and in the aisles was nearly impossible; management didn't know what was selling and what wasn't until a month or more after the fact.

Adding to these challenges, taking monthly physical inventories was a hellish experience. To manually count merchandise and fill out paper inventory records often took 48 hours straight, and during that time, none of the memorabilia vendors were permitted to leave the premises. And even after this ordeal, the computer systems that managed inventory could not communicate with the arena's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, forcing the accounting department to input data manually from hardcopy inventory lists into the general ledger.

Arena management decided to go on the offensive. After looking at different alternatives, it called in Braxton Butterfield Consulting Inc. of Arlington Heights, Ill., to devise a solution that would eliminate manual procedures and streamline the flow of data among the facility's various disparate back-end systems. The back-end Oracle8i database runs on Silicon Graphics Inc.'s Irix servers, while Windows NT servers support the Platinum ERP suite from Epicor Software Corp., in Irvine, Calif. Users access the ERP system's accounting and inventory modules through a browser interfacing to a SilverStream application server, from SilverStream Software Inc., in Billerica, Mass., running on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris E250 UNIX server.

After evaluating the arena's needs, Braxton Butterfield put personal digital assistants (PDAs) equipped with mobile databases in the hands of the memorabilia vendors and receiving clerks. Now, instead of waiting for those grueling monthly inventory reports, management is getting a handle on merchandise the moment it comes in.

John Simon, VP, business development, Braxton Butterfield
United Center workflow

"Suppliers would often over deliver products. Instead of receiving items and accepting them based on purchase orders, only the receiving documents were used," says John Simon, vice president of business development at Braxton Butterfield.

Two mobile database architectures

For more than a decade, databases have been pushing outward from the glass house, first into departments and then onto desktop computers. It's at the point now where the power and functionality of the corporate database is, quite literally, in the hands of end users. These mobile databases are simply the hottest thing in database technology today.

Based on recent studies, by 2003, the number of wireless devices will surpass those of connected devices, most often desktop PCs. Analysts say the mobile or portable database market is ripe for expansion. Recent research from Evans Data Corp., a Scotts Valley, Calif., market research firm, shows that database developers are catching the craze. Of more than 500 database developers surveyed, Evans Data found that 33.5% of database developers are currently targeting wireless or mobile devices as deployment platforms, and over 52% expressed interest in infrastructure tools for creating mobile database management systems (DBMSs).

Today's mobile databases are generally deployed in one of two ways. The first way follows a thin-client model, in which users need only a browser to view information that has been extracted from the database and displayed as a Web page. In this scenario, the actual database need not be--in fact, often is not--resident on a PDA or portable computer.

According to Carl Olofson, program director, information and data management software, at International Data Corp. (IDC), in Framingham, Mass., this implementation provides the simplest, cleanest approach for IT management. "It make sense to provide a thin client because you don't have to do anything to maintain the devices in the field," says Olofson. "You just provide information through a remote connection, manage the data on a server, and then convert it at the source into a format compatible with the device and then transmit it to the device."

AT A GLANCE: The United Center

The company: The United Center, owned and managed by United Center Joint Venture, Chicago

The problem: Inventory management

The solution: Put PDAs equipped with mobile databases in the hands of memorabilia vendors and receiving clerks.

The technology: Braxton Butterfield Consulting's Fandemonium Information Management System (FIMS) uses Oracle Corp.'s Oracle8i Lite portable relational database and Symbol 1700, a PDA from Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y. A companion product to the Oracle database, Oracle iConnect, synchronizes data with central database servers.

In the second scenario, the database and a significant subset of its data are resident on a PDA or portable computer. Olofson says there are good reasons for this approach as well. "If you need to download and navigate a complex set of data, it may be better to have local storage on the device," he says.

Response times with this approach, naturally, are faster, he notes, and because portable devices might not always be able to get a persistent connection to the database, users might not be able to browse information they need on a Web server. In those cases, he says, it's better to have the data and database resident locally.

This second approach was the right one for the United Center. Braxton Butterfield's Fandemonium Information Management System (FIMS) uses Oracle8i Lite portable relational database and the Symbol 1700, a PDA from Symbol Technologies Inc., in Holtsville, N.Y. A companion product to the Oracle database, Oracle iConnect, synchronizes data with central database servers.

Today, employees in receiving compare the shipment being delivered with the purchase order stored on the PDA's database. When they finish comparing shipments and purchase orders, the receiving clerks dock their PDAs in their cradles and automatically upload the information to the main database, thereby synchronizing information in the mobile and central inventory databases.

T-shirts, hats, and other items are sold at one large central store and more than a dozen smaller kiosks throughout the building and in two parking lot locations. Previously, only the main store had cash registers, and all the vendors worked out of aprons. Now, all the vendors are equipped with Symbol PDAs and belt-mounted mini-printers. Vendors can use the bar-code scanner attached to their Symbol PDA and accurately keep track of each item sold.

For the shopper at the main store this means no more long waits in line to make a purchase; any kiosk or central store employee with a PDA could handle checkouts as all cash registers have been eliminated. Cash registers are more expensive than the PDAs. In the old system, there was a need to manually check cash register tapes and then enter the data from them. Credit card sales in the two parking lot locations required the use of a cell phone. With the new wireless solution planned, PDAs with optional card readers will be able to scan cards and get authorization over the wireless network.

For management, the differences are even more pronounced. With a much better handle on inventory, they can keep much less inventory on hand. Because of more timely reports, the United Center now uses just-in-time (JIT) inventory, which has reduced the $400,000 to $500,000 worth of merchandise it used to keep on hand to between $100,000 and $125,000. And there are no more 48-hour marathon monthly inventories to take. Today, the entire process--still done once a month--takes four to six hours, and FIMS has completely eliminated manual data entry.

Some custom programming was needed to create a link that ties the entire system into the United Center's Platinum ERP system. All general ledger and other entries can be done automatically. "Braxton Butterfield's solution has given United Center management the ability to isolate and identify theft of merchandise," according to Simon.

Initial deployment of the handhelds running Oracle8i Lite was accomplished in four weeks. Tying that to the back-end of the palm operating system (POS) was accomplished in eight weeks, and the tie in for inventory was accomplished in 12 weeks. The interface to the ERP and the handheld portion of the inventory was completed in the same 12-week timeline. Initial reports were generated within the 12 weeks, and a final set of reports was completed within 16 weeks. Documentation followed shortly thereafter. Total investment was $250,000 with a return-on-investment of less than two months.

Disconnected and on the move

The beauty of mobile databases is that they allow users to search and view data practically anywhere, at anytime, and--thanks to Java and other technologies--on any platform. The combination of mobility and cross-platform portability is just what Los Angeles-based fresh ground software LLC, a distributor of music clips to the entertainment industry, needed to maximize exposure of its product MusicSource Desktop.

"Our Holy Grail has always been a database that's cross platform," says Scott Herring, fresh ground's vice president, Internet services. The company's music clips are used in TV commercials, movie trailers, and other media.

The original fresh ground application, developed in-house, was done in DOS and then later ported to Windows. But that left Apple Macintosh users--and there are many in the entertainment industry--out in the cold. So fresh ground built an online database of its music clips that is accessible via the Internet. A pure browser based system called fresh ground MusicSource eliminated the Windows only nature of their earlier product.

After building this system, however, Herring says the company realized that not all of its clients would have Internet access all the time. Many customers work on location shooting commercials and feature films in remote locations. Or they travel frequently on airplanes, which doesn't permit them to have the constant connection they need to browse through the company's database of music clips.

fresh ground software VP Scott Herring

To overcome these barriers, fresh ground hit on the idea of using a mobile database, in particular, Cloudscape, an all-Java mobile database from the Oakland, Calif.-based Cloudscape division of Informix Corp., of Menlo Park, Calif. With Cloudscape, fresh ground software was able to port all of the data from its existing Web site to a CD-ROM in just a few days. The CD-ROM, called the MusicSource Desktop, delivers both the Cloudscape Java database engine and the data files to fresh ground's clients.

The multiplatform capabilities of the Java database enable MusicSource Desktop to run on any platform with a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), distributed with the database application. Herring calls it a "standard off-the-shelf JVM." Using Java technology also greatly simplifies the need to keep the database of music clips current. "The application will automatically search for [updates to the database] when launched if a connection to the Internet exists," Herring says.

Push-pull capabilities enhance database use

For other companies, it's not so much the mobility of the database that is important, but the technology used to implement it that has proved critical. Edgilent Corp., in Rolling Meadows, Ill., calls itself a commerce service provider, a category of application service provider (ASP). The company hosts online catalog and inventory management systems for small- and medium-sized manufacturers and distributors that want to be active in business-to-business (B2B) online procurement activities, but can't afford the investment required to install and maintain such e-commerce systems on their own.

At the core of Edgilent's service is the eCatalog Suite, Service Provider Edition, a database and catalog management system from Poet Software Inc., of San Mateo, Calif. The Poet system provides for database file extraction, manipulation, and reformatting for various PDAs.

Raj Ponnuswamy, president, Edgilent Corp.

The Poet database gives Edgilent's customers both push and pull capabilities. Edgilent customers maintain their own catalog and inventory systems in a broad range of formats on their own networks. The Poet database extracts information from these various file and data types and places it on Edgilent's Dell Computer NT servers. Once the data is captured, the customer can manipulate it by adding or modifying fields or performing other tasks. Edgilent customer databases are imported into the Poet system. The Poet product then can export this captured data in a variety of formats appropriate for Edgilent's customers' own clients' needs. For example, Poet can export in HTML or XML or send text e-mail attachments. Clients can also pull data directly from the Poet servers.

Lessons learned about mobile databases

  • For better performance and to support more richness of data, a local database is the way to go.

  • When managing data is the priority, a thin-client architecture that allows browser-based views into the data on a remote database would be preferred.

  • Wireless devices may not always be able to establish and maintain a connection, which should be a consideration when choosing which architecture is best for your application.

  • Reconciling changes of multiple local databases to a central database can be a major challenge. Rules to arbitrate updates to central databases when multiple devices connect should be carefully established.

  • According to Edgilent president Raj Ponnuswamy the real power of the Poet eCatalog Suite is in the exportation of the data, facilitated by the database's integral support of multiple versions of eXtensible Markup Language. XML enables the database to perform data interchange among all the various systems and formats, while presenting the data in standard HTML so it can be viewed by almost any device with a compatible browser.

    Connection is key

    Peter O'Kelly, a senior analyst with The Patricia Seybold Group, in Boston, says he believes the two different approaches to mobile database technology will continue. Consistency of coverage in North America is a bigger problem than available bandwidth, O'Kelly says, while Europe has better options for always-connected devices.

    "You always want the option of supporting an occasionally disconnected device," he adds. "Even in the best of circumstances, you are not always guaranteed a connection. For example, you may be aboard an airplane and not want to conflict with the aircraft electronics."

    Whatever the architecture, mobile databases are likely to continue to evolve and change rapidly in the near future. The potential of wireless mobile devices and their increasing adoption by corporations and individuals points out just how important mobile databases are becoming.

    Whatever the architecture, mobile databases are likely to continue to evolve and change rapidly in the near future. The potential of wireless mobile devices and their high rate of adoption among corporations and individuals indicate just how important mobile databases are becoming. //

    Neil Plotnick is the author of The IT Professional's Guide to Managing Systems, Vendors and End-Users. He has supported a variety of computer systems in various industries for more than 15 years. He can be reached at Neil@NeilPlotnick.com.

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