Shopping without dropping

DOD EMall manager Debra Roobol says adopting a common data scheme was essential for the growth of the portal that she expects will handle 475,000 transactions this year.

DOD EMall embraces new XML extension to handle transactions of $1 million weekly

To keep pace with spiraling traffic, the Defense Department's EMall portal is shifting to an emerging transactions standard based on the Extensible Markup Language.

The portal is one of the largest online operations'inside government or out'to adopt the standard, dubbed Electronic Business using XML, or ebXML. By spring, the DOD EMall team expects the purchasing portal will be completely powered by ebXML.

The mall's business has been growing while the systems supporting it have gotten more complex, said Debra Roobol, the DOD EMall program manager and chief of the Defense Logistics Agency's E-Commerce and Standards Branch.

Those systems'managed by a trio of prime contractors'processed about 360,000 transactions in fiscal 2003, or about $1 million per week.

This year, the number of transactions will grow to 475,000, Roobol estimated.

In May 2001, the Defense Information Systems Agency recommended that DOD EMall contractors use the Java2 Enterprise Edition platform plus WebLogic application servers and application development tools from BEA Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

'A J2EE approach gives us scalability, affordability, faster maintenance and enhancement capability,' Roobol said.

The three contractors that support the mall sought a common format for their multiple transaction systems and found it in ebXML supported by J2EE.

Bye-bye, EDI

The up-and-coming ebXML standard could supplant electronic data interchange, the dominant pre-Internet method for business-to-business transactions online.

'EbXML gives us a lower risk and more flexible architecture,' said Ashley Byrd, a DOD EMall systems architect at the ICF Consulting Group Inc. of Fairfax, Va., which is a subcontractor to the South Carolina Research Authority, one of the three primes.

Eventually, the plan is for DOD EMall to embrace wireless clients and to have single-sign-on compatibility with other Defense portals. It will also integrate more tightly with DLA's logistics modernization effort, Roobol said.

Moving to WebLogic sets the stage for a public-key infrastructure, Roobol said. Then service members can use their Common Access Cards to identify themselves at the mall.

'When a system like EMall grows more and more complex with more and more modules, you need a standardized way for things to interact, otherwise you end up with a bowl of spaghetti,' said Don Brown, president of PartNet Inc. of Salt Lake City, another prime supporting DOD EMall.

Although DISA specified J2EE, it did not specify ebXML. The EMall contractors, working together, chose it independently.

'We evolved that out of the architecture team,' Byrd said.

The three prime contractors each handle a separate piece of DOD EMall, where military personnel search for and procure stocks from commercial providers. They can search by military or manufacturer stock number, manufacturer name or product category. As in commercial online stores, buyers fill virtual shopping carts with items they want to purchase.

The operation involves a lot of information trading behind the screen. PartNet assembles the suppliers' product information into a single, searchable Web catalog, and many orders can be fulfilled directly by vendors that connect to PartNet's system. Other orders pass along to one of the other two contractors' facilities.

The South Carolina Research Authority maintains the rules engine that parses orders. Each military service has different requirements for processing, and the authority routes orders by these rules as well as auctions off custom-manufactured parts.

Raytheon Co. manages the back-end systems that interface with credit card companies and parts suppliers.

All three contractors plan to have ebXML 2.0 Web services underpinning DOD EMall early this year, Byrd said.

For its portion of the mall, the South Carolina Research Authority uses a trio of BEA applications:
8WebLogic Workshop 8.1 for the integrated development environment where components are tied together and tested
  • WebLogic Integration 8.1 for Java component libraries

  • WebLogic Server 8.1 for executing the run-time components.

The authority's portion of DOD EMall has eight Sun Microsystems Inc. servers running the Oracle9.2i relational database management system under Solaris.

The ebXML standard came into being in 2001. It's the work of two standards bodies: the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and the United Nations Center for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business, which developed EDI.

SOAP too slippery?

Formulated as an XML replacement for EDI, the ebXML standard extends the Simple Object Access Protocol, an XML data exchange standard sanctioned by the World Wide Web Consortium.

EbXML will not be submitted for W3C approval, said Carol Geyer, OASIS director of communications, and it is, of course, not the only standard for XML transactions.

SOAP can provide transactional services. OASIS is also sponsoring the RosettaNet initiative through which Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp. and other organizations are developing XML transaction standards for supply chain management. RosettaNet uses portions of ebXML, Geyer said.

The primary reason for choosing ebXML for DOD EMall was 'reliability in moving messages around,' PartNet's Brown said. 'The thing people don't appreciate is the deficiency of SOAP in standalone Web services. For some applications, SOAP is fine, but when you have a lot of transactions moving through, you can't afford any guesswork.'

Brown said he is encouraging ebXML use by the mall's commercial suppliers.

'When you are small, people can call and say they didn't get an order. But when you grow, that just isn't scalable. It puts too much burden on customer support,' he said.

EbXML has other advanced features useful to DOD EMall, ICF's Byrd said. It can eliminate duplicate orders and allow automatic retries if first attempts fail. It also supports asynchronous processing'if one part of the system is slow to respond, the order will be routed without requiring the user to wait for confirmation. Another advantage is that ebXML is interoperable with Web services environments that do not use BEA products or J2EE components. PartNet uses ebXML along with servers from BEA and others. Raytheon relies in part on a Microsoft platform. 'With this protocol, everything works together,' Byrd said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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