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International Data Post Brings Snail Mail to the Internet Age with iPlanet

In this sample chapter, authors Rick Cattell and Jim Inscore discuss INTERNATIONAL DATA POST (IDP), a Copenhagen, Denmark-based postal technology solutions company that is taking the communications realm of postal operations to the Internet age using Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) technology.
This sample chapter is excerpted from J2EE™ Technology in Practice: Building Business Applications with the Java™ 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition, by Rick Cattell and Jim Inscore.
This chapter is from the book

INTERNATIONAL DATA POST (IDP), a Copenhagen, Denmark-based postal technology solutions company, is taking the communications realm of postal operations to the Internet age, using Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) technology. The company, owned by seven global postal operators, is a pioneer of "hybrid mail," which streamlines a letter's delivery cycle by enabling electronic delivery from the sender to the post office. There—rather than at the sender's site—the document is printed, stamped, and physically delivered to the recipient. By using IDP's solution, postal organizations can grow beyond providing only communications logistics services, and add e-messaging to their repertoire. And organizations from a multitude of other industries can license the solution to capture new revenue opportunities.

IDP's hybrid mail management system, ePOST, was first developed in the late 1980s on a mixed infrastructure, of IBM mainframe computers and legacy middleware. Since then, the system has enjoyed incredible acceptance from both postal operators and corporations. In 1998 alone, IDP customers produced more than two billion hybrid mail letters.

A little over a year ago, IDP decided to extend ePOST by incorporating a front-end, Web-based access channel for the solution. Its engineers, however, lacked expertise in developing Internet-based applications. IDP consulted a half-dozen leading IT vendors to determine the type of technology and solution that would garner the most success. After talking with Sun Microsystems, the company was convinced that the total package from Sun—including J2EE technology, for its growing reputation as a highly flexible Internet application development platform—offered the most attractive option. IDP called on Sun Professional Services to architect and design the application, called WEB ePOST. WEB ePOST was developed with J2EE-compliant iPlanet Application Server and iPlanet Web Server running various Java and J2EE technology components, including Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB), Java ServerPages (JSP), Java Servlets, and Java applets.

Now, IDP customers can mail letters using a standard Web browser, saving significantly on printing, administration, and postage costs. And traditional postal operators, whose market has been under pressure from new technologies and new competitors, finally have a Web-based offering that ties into their core business and helps them exploit new markets to grow their revenues and build their businesses. Currently, several postal operators—who reach more than one billion addresses and represent more than 75 percent of the worldwide postal mail volume—have licensed WEB ePOST. As for IDP, J2EE technology has given the company a rapid application development environment that can easily be leveraged for future projects.

10.1 Company Profile

Imagine sending colorful brochures to thousands of physical mailboxes~all with a click of the mouse. No more envelope stuffing, stamp licking, or traveling to the nearest post office. Thanks to cutting-edge technology from IDP, that day has arrived. Using IDP's hybrid-mail solution, which brings together electronic and physical delivery of mail, businesses are sending letters, paper invoices, and other printed materials directly from their PCs. "We call this the next-generation mail system," says Jacob Johnsen, vice president of research and development at IDP. "We're bringing the postal service to the Internet while saving corporations substantial dollars in the process, and enhancing the service standards and accessibility of the postal network."

IDP worked with Sun Professional Services to be at the forefront of this revolution, offering complex messaging software and related services that make Internet mailing a very practical reality. More than a dozen companies have pre-licensed IDP's state-of-the-art WEB ePOST, the Internet channel for its hybrid-mail system. As IDP continues to extend the market introduction of WEB ePOST, the company anticipates attracting even more licensees.

Unlike the many Web-born companies that have met their financial demise over the past year, IDP is an established IT company with a solid foundation. It garnered tremendous support from industry stalwarts. Shareholders include seven of the world's top public postal operators (the equivalent of the U.S. Postal Service) in Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. As noted earlier, these postal operators reach more than a billion addresses and represent more than 75 percent of the worldwide postal mail volume. IDP has 50 employees, half of whom are technical support, customer service, and testing staff. The other half of the workforce includes staff from product management, consulting, sales, and administration.

It is no wonder hybrid mail systems are attractive to postal operators. Hybrid mail presents a way by which an old industry can profit in the new economy. And the timing could not be better: With a growing range of electronic communications in our connected society—e-mail, electronic attachments, faxes, and cellular phones, to name a few—postal operators are facing significant competition in an ever-expanding market. Reliable TCP/IP connections and emerging technology such as digital signatures enable companies to send and receive corporate invoices and purchase orders~once the bastion of the physical letter~in the domain of the Internet. And as for letters that still find their way into a mail carrier's sack, the contrast with e-mail messages that arrive in minutes—even seconds—after the writer hits the "send" button is enough to make any postal operator want to go electronic. According to IDP, more than 70 percent of postal letters are originally created on computers and then printed out, placed in an envelope, stamped, and dropped off in a bin~an operation that can be inefficient, especially where mass mailings are concerned.

For postal operators, hybrid-mail systems are fast becoming the high-tech tools of choice for breaking into new market opportunities. "Hybrid mail secures the position of postal operators as trusted parties in the electronic communications age, creating a digital channel for efficient message delivery," explains Flemming Skov Hansen, senior project manager at IDP. "For customers, our solution is attractive because it provides them with the ability to conduct high-volume mailings at lower prices and with shorter delivery times. What was once a cumbersome mailing project, particularly in terms of the logistics and resources needed, now becomes a streamlined communication process." Indeed, IDP studies show that corporations using WEB ePOST cut mailing costs nearly in half, replacing time- and cost-intensive manual labor with lightning-fast, Internet-based automation.

IDP licenses its software to corporations, telecommunication carriers, Internet portal operators, ASPs, and of course, postal administrations. More than just a technology solution provider, IDP also offers an array of professional services, ranging from strategy consulting and marketing to technology implementation and operation. "We are a center of expertise for e-messaging solutions, technology, and markets," Johnsen says.

10.1.1 Hybrid Mail: The Technology Evolution

Hybrid-mail systems emerged, with little fanfare, on the high-tech scene in the 1980s, The slow start had much to do with the fact that postal operators traditionally thought of themselves as logistics carriers, rather than as having a role in electronic communications. Still, a handful of European countries saw the seeds of something spectacular; in 1992, Nordic Data Post, which included postal operators in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, began developing its own hybrid mail offering. Intrigued by the solution's potential, postal operators in France, Germany, and Australia jumped on board over the next couple of years, and Nordic Data Post became International Data Post.

Shortly after, postal operators in 18 countries, including Italy, the United States, Singapore and Portugal, started licensing ePOST. These international companies realized they could suddenly and cheaply conduct mass mailings in countries where postal operators embraced ePOST. In other words, companies could send documents electronically to a country~possibly overseas~and have the documents printed there, rather than pay hefty charges for shipping bulky paper.

An early hybrid-mail application, ePOST/VM, was built on the IBM VM mainframe platform and ran on IBM S/370- and IBM S/390-compatible hardware (this version is being phased out). IDP then decided to build an access solution for PCs, called PC ePOST. It is a Microsoft Windows-based application that acts as a virtual printer—that is, PC ePOST users can submit print jobs directly into a hybrid mail system, sending electronic versions of their mailings through cyberspace and eventually to a printing company. (The carrier in this system is standard SMTP e-mail transport system.)

The next system, ePOST/Open 1—and later ePOST/Open 2, released in late 1998—is a UNIX-based system that supports printer servers such as IBM InfoPrint Manager, IBM PSF/6000, and Oce Prisma APA. It utilizes middleware from Oracle, as well as IBM MQSeries. Its major routing system runs on IBM AIX and HP-UX, though it is currently being ported to Sun's Solaris Operating Environment for greater stability.

The eventual rise of the Internet and the ubiquity of Web browsers triggered a momentous milestone in the evolution of IDP's hybrid-mail system application. In its quest to become the worldwide leader in postal e-messaging, IDP knew it needed to provide a Web channel to ePOST. This newest iteration of its solution eventually became known as WEB ePOST.

To develop WEB ePOST, IDP recognized it required powerful Internet-based software built on standard components and protocols that would enable customers to prepare sizable electronic documents for safe and reliable transport over the Internet. The software would need to work with just about any production tool or word processor and connect to both enterprise-scale server infrastructures and legacy mainframe environments. Moreover, IDP officials saw this as a big opportunity to brand the company and its postal operators as Web-savvy organizations. It was at this moment in its evolution that IDP remembered the promise of Java technology.

Figure 10.1 Postal Customers Save Substantially by Sending Hybrid Mail Through WEB ePOST

10.1.2 Why J2EE Technology?

The decision to extend ePOST using Java technology and a multitiered architecture was based on the need for flexibility and scalability, as well as on the ability to speed up future application development. WEB ePOST also needed to be easy to integrate into customer IT infrastructures and work seamlessly with nearly every production tool used for creating documents and graphics.

Since a company might possibly send thousands of mission-critical documents daily, IDP needed a multitiered architecture so that it could add servers quickly, to handle sudden and massive transaction spikes. Early on, IDP also envisioned organizations other than postal operators licensing WEB ePOST, so it wanted to be sure its solution could be customized for a variety of industries so that it could capitalize on new business opportunities. A restaurant chain could, for example, customize WEB ePOST to enable users to send postcards, birthday cards, or registered mail. Using the various components of the J2EE platform, IDP could save some time and effort because of the reusable business-logic code inherent in J2EE technology.

For WEB ePOST to be a practical, attractive solution, it had to require little or no end-user training. The fewer barriers to adoption, the more likely corporations long familiar with traditional mailing methods would switch over to hybrid-mail systems—without concern about overcoming challenges that any new technology can bring. This meant WEB ePOST had to connect seamlessly with popular Web browsers, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape. It also needed to work with packaged address books, such as Microsoft Outlook, with a MAPI interface or in conjunction with an LDAP or ODBC-based database.

After speaking to several vendors, IDP found the flexible development environment for building its multi-tier enterprise application—the J2EE platform. By basing enterprise applications on standardized, modular components, and managing many details of application behavior, without complex programming, J2EE technology simplifies their development. "Java technology offers the most flexible solution for this kind of development, because it can operate on any platform whatsoever," notes Hansen. "In addition, from a marketing perspective, the Java brand has a lot of power with our customer base. Java technology was a natural choice."

But even with the promise of application development ease, IDP engineers knew little about Java technology and the J2EE architecture~only that the technology was fast becoming the de facto standard for developing flexible applications, and for extending existing applications to the Web. The engineers desperately needed experienced professionals to work with them. "We were very new to the world of Internet development," says Johnsen. "We had developed on big UNIX servers, built production-class software that ran 24x7, and even made some PC developments. But these were largely unconnected to architecting, building, and deploying a J2EE platform. We needed someone to guide us through the design and implementation phases."

Consequently, IDP turned to the services firm that logically had the most Java technology expertise, Sun Professional Services. "Our main reason for choosing Sun Professional Services was that its proof-of-concept seemed to be a solid solution that met our criteria for reliably bringing our hybrid-mail system to the Web," says Johnsen. "Another key reason was the reputation of Sun Professional Services in architecting sophisticated platform infrastructures based on Java technology." He adds, "And the brand name of Sun was also an obvious factor."

Of course, providing a Web front-end access point for an application such as ePOST using Java technology~or any other technology, for that matter~isn't as simple as it sounds. To begin, powerful functionality needed to be built into the front end so that users could send Hybrid Markup Language (HML) documents to IDP's hybrid message management system, where addresses could be inserted and the completed file routed to a post operator's paper-based distribution system. In addition, there was a need for a complex server-side portion of the Web application to handle business logic and transaction processing.

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