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Web Services, Rice Pudding--CIO Just Wants It To Work

The CIO of Imperial Sugar says he selected SilverStream's Web-services tools not because they were cutting edge, but because they could do what he wanted them to.
George Muller, CIO of Imperial Sugar Co., doesn't care how a vendor markets its technology, as long as it works well and meets his needs. Those two criteria played heavily in Muller's choice of SilverStream Software Inc. to build a customer-focused extranet for the largest U.S. marketer of refined sugar.

Muller wasn't swayed by the vendor's talk of its Web-services tools building the next generation of Web applications. "Call it Web services or call it rice pudding, they were able to do what we wanted to do in a short period of time and in an economical way," Muller says. "And we were able to train our IT staff in using these tools so they could march down the field and get the job done."

SilverStream and competitor Iona Technologies plc next week are unveiling new versions of their application and integration servers. The servers make it possible to build and deploy applications that can be linked to other software either over the Web or internally using emerging XML-dependent Web-services technologies.

Web services have the potential to deliver a relatively simple way of integrating applications, a complex problem for many companies. SilverStream and Iona, with annual revenue of $80.6 million and $153.1 million, respectively, both lost money in their most-recent quarters, but Iona is expected to return to profitability this quarter.

Imperial Sugar uses the SilverStream eXtend Composer integration server to make XML-based requests and receive XML-based responses from the company's two highly customized order-management systems, one running on IBM's OS/390 and the other on IBM's AS/400. SilverStream describes the interaction with the mainframe applications as a Web service, even though it leverages Enterprise JavaBean technology and not any of the emerging Web services standards. Composer is, however, capable of leveraging those technologies.

Through the extranet launched in June, Imperial Sugar customers can access order information such as status, time of delivery, shipment date, and whether it can be fulfilled. Only five of Imperial's more than 10,000 customers use the system. But the company hopes to have a majority of those 10,000 online within 18 months.

Because customers are used to doing business with Imperial via fax, telephone, or electronic data interchange, it will take time to convince them to use the Web, Muller says. "Changing that culture takes an adjustment that is definitely a paradigm shift." Imperial plans to offer customers the ability to enter orders directly into the system by the end of the year.

While prevented by company policy from providing hard numbers, Imperial's return on investment is measured by the additional time customer-service reps can spend on tasks other than providing order-status information. Besides, customers can get that information quicker through the extranet site. "In a commodity business like sugar, the way to differentiate ourselves with the customer is through service," Muller says.

Pricing for SilverStream eXtend for large companies begins at $100,000. Iona's Orbix E2A e-Business Platform ships in December, with pricing starting at $500 per development license and $2,500 per deployment license.

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