USPS readies business portal

'By collecting all this information on one centralized database, our operations managers get a profile of the mail coming in to them and when.'

'Larry Goodman

(GCN Photo by Dan Gross)

Postal Service officials don't measure the documentation business mailers send them by thickness in inches, but in how many feet high the records stand.

USPS receives a mountain of such paper each month and stores it in warehouses across the country, taking resources to sort and manage it.

To handle the data, the Postal Service will implement phase two of the PostalOne system to replace piles of documents with terabytes of data. The USPS Board of Governors last month approved $54.1 million for phase two.

The initiative will let business mailers send documentation over the Internet and allow postal employees to verify the information more easily. It also will simplify the collection and evaluation of business mail data.

'We are trying to provide a single portal where business mailers can send information electronically and provide visibility to their mailings,' said Larry Goodman, manager of the
Postal Service's business customer support systems.

Business mail makes up more than 70 percent of the Postal Service's volume and brings in about $100 million a day in revenue.

With more than 50 percent of its revenue coming from business mailers, USPS officials said it is important to improve its antiquated system, called Permit.

Permit runs Cobol software written by Postal Service employees. It resides on a VAX Alpha mainframe from Digital Equipment Corp., later acquired by Compaq Computer Corp.

Each of the 2,600 post offices accepting bulk business mail has similar unconnected systems.
'The lack of communication between the systems causes huge problems,' Goodman said. 'Mailers have to establish a mailing permit and a bank account in each location. We also have trouble supporting the system.'

Collecting and evaluating accounting data each month was difficult and time-consuming as well, he said.

PostalOne's first phase piloted the technology and set up the infrastructure for a national rollout at a cost of $10.1 million, Goodman said. It was open to the 71 largest postal customer sites nationwide and focused only on standard and periodic mailers'two of the most common types of business mail. Phase two will expand PostalOne to all business mailers and let businesses pay for their shipments electronically by 2005.

Vendors submit documentation via a Web browser that runs a Java applet written in-house by USPS programmers. The applet controls how the file is sent through the vendor's Internet service provider and executes some basic editing on the data, Goodman said. Files also are compressed and secured using 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption.

The average vendor file is a few megabytes but can be as large as 100M, Goodman said.

The system's back end is at an Egan, Minn., postal facility. It comprises a variety of Sun Microsystems servers running Solaris. The data is kept on an Oracle8i database, and the systems are connected over the agency's WAN.

'By collecting all this information on one centralized database, our operations managers get a profile of the mail coming in to them and when,' Goodman said. 'They will be able to allocate resources better for large business mailings. And the vendors will be able to see the status of their shipments and make sure their information is correct.'

Acceptance clerks at post offices also will check vendor information on the USPS intranet with an application created in Cold Fusion.

Just one account

Once the payment part comes online, business mailers will pay for services at postal locations across the country from one account.

'We are opening the door for any mailer to electronically exchange information with us,' Goodman said. 'Our current system has made it difficult for us to keep up with changing business needs that come in a digital environment. Clearly, this is a new environment with a lot of benefits for us and our customers.'

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