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10.2 Problem/Opportunity Profile: The Applet Dilemma

The biggest challenge in developing WEB ePOST was building the client-side Java applet—the lynchpin for the entire system, which performs complex tasks, as well as interfaces with different Web browsers. The problem was that this applet kept growing because IDP wanted it to be packed with functionality and graphics. As the development of the application progressed and more and more functionality was embedded in this applet, it reached a little more than a megabyte. At the same time, the company did not want the Java applet's size to become a barrier to adoption.

The Java applet provides the graphical user interface (GUI) and a rich array of functionality for the WEB ePOST user to send postscript files and select postal delivery options, as well as letter and envelope formats. Users can select a set of standard enclosures~residing at the core printing system~to be added with each letter. For example, a pitch letter offering a credit card with low interest rates might be paired with a flier describing a free gift for those who sign on. The applet also has a built-in calculator that enables users to calculate the cost of sending the letters, depending on their formats and delivery options. In addition, the Java applet is responsible for generating the HML file wrapped around the postscript file. (HML takes into account delivery attributes, such as addresses, document layout, and enclosures.)

The applet integrates seamlessly with a variety of address databases: Microsoft Outlook, through MAPI; Lotus Notes, through LDAP; and Microsoft Access, through ODBC. This enables users to select any number of recipients and enter data fields into the letter. Users could also preview a bit map of the letter, including recipient addresses, reserved fields, and other information, via the applet. The remaining functionality for WEB ePOST, such as document management and security, resides within the solution's server, iPlanet Application Server.

Sun and IDP decided to identify an alternative that would help ameliorate the challenges associated with using a large Java applet. Instead of having users download the applet over the Web every time they wanted to use WEB ePOST, they would have to download it only once and store it on their hard drives. Simply put, a megabyte would take too long to download over and over again from a narrow bandwidth, such as dial-up lines. By downloading the applet once and storing it locally, a user would have ready access to the application whenever needed.

Still, the size of the applet somewhat limited WEB ePOST in terms of the platforms it supported. The applet can run from two major browsers~Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator~and on Windows 95, 98, and NT. It should also work on any operating system (such as Macintosh and UNIX) that supports these browsers. "Our customers' IT environments vary incredibly, but the one thing they have in common is a browser," says Michael Olsen, a software engineer at IDP. "That's why developing WEB ePOST was vital to the future success of our company."

10.2.1 Collaboration with Sun Professional Services

The Sun Professional Services Java Center, in Stockholm, Sweden, was initially engaged to provide an architectural assessment for WEB ePOST. The proof of concept and other accompanying documents used IDP's service-level requirements as the basis to architect a multitier platform infrastructure with layers that contain the various J2EE components. And after developing an implementation plan, Sun Professional Services worked with IDP to build and deploy WEB ePOST. Although Sun Professional Services was an important component in architecting and building WEB ePOST, Hansen notes, its biggest contribution was in knowledge transfer: "From a technical standpoint, we found Sun Professional Services to be very skilled and extremely professional in its understanding of Java technology and moreover in mentoring our Java engineers."

Part of the services-driven methodology used by Sun Professional Services is based on the rational unified process (RUP) methodology for software development, which was leveraged in the development of Web ePOST. Developed by Rational Software Corporation, RUP is a case-driven software development process. In essence, it provides a roadmap that helps to ensure that the development of certain applications coincides with end-user requirements, not to mention coalesces with other applications in development. With RUP, you can focus on eliminating risks early by implementing and testing the most critical use cases first~typically, during the inception phase~and then building out the bulk of applications during the elaboration and construction phases. Since each RUP iteration results in an executable part of an application, performance testing can start as soon as the first iteration. Johnsen notes, "The consultants from Sun Professional Services trained our engineers in the RUP methodology, which helped us stay on track to deliver the product in a timely manner. And now that our IT staff has both a practical and theoretical understanding of the RUP methodology, we will likely be able to speed development cycles of projects in the future."

Along the way, IDP and Sun overcame the challenges that can come with any first-time collaboration and built a strong working relationship that promises to continue delivering benefits well into the future. Other technology providers played smaller roles in the development and enhancement of WEB ePOST. For instance, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young subcontracted with Sun to design the graphical user interface. EOS, a Danish IT start-up, developed JAD'K, a Java/RMI server for credit card authorizations, which IDP used in the solution's testing phases.

After working with consultants from Sun Professional Services for more than a year, IDP engineers say they now have a strong understanding of Java technology~and this has opened the doors to other revenue streams—namely, joint professional services. In addition to being a product company, IDP offers consulting, systems integration, and even custom-development of WEB ePOST's Java applet. "There is an opportunity for us to offer consulting services to our installed base," says Paul Donohoe, director of product management and professional services at IDP. "And Sun Professional Services may be able to play a role in this future, as well."

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