Case Study: Freight carrier wraps up Web services

Con-Way Transportation Services in the US didn't wait for standards to be ironed out before beginning to experiment with Web services. But now that standards exist, the commercial freight carrier is giving its Web services applications a makeover, with an eye toward decreasing the development burden on its IT staff and its customers' IT resources.

Two years ago, Con-Way began working with raw XML to link its systems with those of its customers, says Jerry Hilts, systems analyst at the US$2 billion Ann Arbor company. From the start, Con-Way's intent was to provide better service to its customers, which include retailers, manufacturers and logistics companies. "If we can tie our shipping information to their supply-chain management software, it helps us build tighter and better relationships," Hilts says.

The company viewed XML as an alternative to linking systems via electronic data interchange (EDI), which was too costly for most of its customers and, with its batch-mode processes, not dynamic enough. "EDI works great, but it generally requires that a company make a large investment in EDI. It also is not very real-time, at least the way we've implemented it," Hilts says.

So Hilts and his team created Document Type Definitions - which define the elements and structure of an XML document - and schemas related to common customer transactions, such as requesting a quote, tracking the status of a shipment and submitting a bill of lading.

Con-Way made the applications available over the Internet, complete with authentication and encryption features, so that registered users could connect their systems and provide shipment information directly to their employees or customers. "It was really a roll-it-ourselves kind of deal," Hilts says.

Today, Con-Way is ready to launch upgraded versions of its Web services applications. The company is just finishing a migration of its application server platform from WebSphere Application Server Version 3.5 to Version 4.0. As soon as that's complete, the new Web services will follow, Hilts says.

"We can do it in WebSphere 3.5, but it's a lot easier to flip on Web services in WebSphere 4.0," Hilts says.

What makes Version 4.0 easier for Con-Way is not that there's less coding to do - there is actually more code generated the new way - but the tools do more of the work, he says. IBM has more tightly integrated its development tools and application server platform in Version 4.0, and the combination lets Con-Way develop new Web services from its Java applications in a quick and relatively painless way, Hilts says.

Even more important, it's easier on Con-Way's customers, Hilts says. "Now they have to look at the raw XML schemas that we've developed, and then parse them and map those into their data structures to feed their Web sites or their [enterprise resource planning] system or whatever they are trying to get the data into," he says.

But not for long.

The new generation of Con-Way's Web services adheres to today's industry standards, such as Web Services Description Language (WSDL), Simple Object Application Protocol (SOAP) and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI). Because many customers' applications support these standards, it eliminates a lot of the translation work on the customer side, Hilts says.

WSDL, a description language for XML documents, provides a machine and human-readable view of transactions, which makes it easier for users to handle, Hilts says. Today's development tools can aid in writing the parsing code, for example, he says.

SOAP, which is the transport mechanism for Web services, specifies procedures for common tasks such as error handling, which enables consistency, Hilts says. And UDDI, a group of specifications for Web services directories, eventually could make it easier for customers and partners to find and use Con-Way's Web services, Hilts says.

"The great part about it being all XML-based is it doesn't matter that we're using Java and IBM tools. Somebody else could be using the tools from Redmond," Hilts says.

The Web services applications complement Con-Way's other customer channels: its call center and Web site.

For Hilts and his team, the beauty of the three customer service options is that they share a common infrastructure. Call center representatives working on Con-Way's intranet, customers searching Con-Way's Web site and Web services applications all access a single tracking system - just through different interfaces, Hilts says. "It's only the very edge of the code that's different. They are using common components almost all the way down to the very end of the picture," he says.

Hilts' advice to others considering Web services rollouts is not to fear XML.

"People are a little daunted by XML, but it's not any harder to make an XML display of the data than it is to make a Web page display of the data," Hilts says.

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