Application framework smooths the ride

Standards and code reuse are a winning combination at trucking firm

How do you explain the bottom-line value of a new software development and deployment process to nontechnical trucking executives? For Bob Grawien and the application development team at Schneider National, that may have been the toughest part of an eight-year project that would eventually touch all of the company's business systems.

"Our goal was to establish a set of standards for our application development community around the middleware and tools that we use," recalls Grawien, who serves as vice president of enterprise architecture at Schneider.

"That work led to the development of a set of shared technology services that now underlie all of the applications developed here."

Those shared services are part of a framework called the Web Application Foundation, which has become fundamental to the application development process at Schneider. Grawien describes the foundation as a very robust implementation of the model-view-controller (MVC) pattern. The MVC is a well-known application structure that separates the business logic and data access components from the programming of the user interface.

First and foremost, Grawien says, the foundation provides Schneider with a way to enforce application development standards -- the company's security model, for example, as well as database access, application integration, calls between services, all the way down to techniques for providing drop-down menus on a user interface. "These kinds of things are just available to our developers," Grawien explains, "so they need to write zero lines of code to provide them."

The foundation is based on J2EE and built around IBM's WebSphere application server and related tools. Schneider has been a Java shop for years, and it was an early adopter of WebSphere. The company is also a longtime user of IBM's development tools, starting with the now-extinct VisualAge IDE. Today, the company's developers use tools based on the open-source Eclipse tooling framework, which IBM created.

Schneider's application development group comprises approximately 200 developers, which the company augments with onshore and offshore contractors on an as-needed basis. The architecture team, which developed the framework, is a core unit of about a dozen members of that group.

The company's development group is responsible for homegrown applications for all aspects of Schneider's business. They've built roughly 100 transactional applications over the past seven years.

That's a lot of software, but this is a big company. Schneider National is one of the largest privately owned truckload carriers in the country, with a fleet of approximately 14,000 tractors and 40,000 trailers. It has 15,500 professional truck drivers covering approximately 8 million miles per day. Schneider also provides a range of so-called truckload services as well as logistics services to third parties for managing freight transport.

Grawien joined the company in 1999 after a 20-year stint at IBM. His experience in IBM's software group led naturally to his work at Schneider, and, essentially, provided the underpinnings for his architecture team's work on the Web Application Foundation. Grawien recently received a "Ones-to-Watch" award from Computerworld's sister publication,

"I was honored to receive that award," Grawien says, "but it's really a tribute to a lot of hard work by a lot of very good people here at Schneider over the past few years. It really was a team accomplishment."

The evolution of application development at Schneider has lead to what Grawien calls "a new generation of Web-based applications." The company has even secured a process patent for an application developed on the foundation framework: the Collaborative Value Network, which is a Web-enabled freight management application used in Schneider's third-party logistics business. The company also has a patent on a rating application, which was developed before the foundation was established. The Rate Server application processes load requests and calculates per-mile shipping rates for customers. It was easily ported to the framework, Grawien say, and runs on it today.

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