Open Source Opens Doors for Developers

by Bob Gilbert

Fortunately for developers using open-source tools, MBA-buzz terms, such as return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO), are hard-hitting selling points built into the open-source equation. The bean counters sit up and take notice when they hear they can have a new, powerful, fully-integrated e-commerce and back-end system for a fraction of the proprietary price. You can almost hear the gears whirring inside their heads as they cubby-hole the savings into better hardware, more programming, slicker design or some non-technical aspect of the company. Of course, they can always tack it onto the bottom line; after all, money earned and not spent is profit.

Ron Lazarus, chief operating officer at Just Sports in Irvine, California, made a leap of faith into the unknown when he opted for open-source tools to create his company's new transactional database management system. But it was also a smart business decision. Just Sports saved itself a boatload of money by using the Linux operating system and PostgreSQL, a powerful open-source database management system, all running on Apache-powered servers. The final product is fast and highly customized with functions not available to users of Microsoft, Oracle or other proprietary software.

Its vast and varied support system is another weighty advantage to open source. When Gavin Roy, president of ReadySetNet, Just Sports' system developer, found the new system running slowly during the shake-out, he ran a diagnostic and learned it was using only 80 megabytes of its two gigabytes of RAM. He posted a query on an open-source bulletin board and within two hours had the answer to his problem, which he promptly fixed. "In the proprietary world", says Roy, "That might have taken two years to figure out."

Despite open source's quick bug-fixes and other advantages, its lack of a corporate umbilical cord, and an attendant technical support number to call in times of crises, are a source of consternation for some clients. However, companies anxious over whom to call when the going gets tough (Open Source community bulletin boards and user groups notwithstanding, of course), can work through open-source vendors, such as Red Hat for the Linux operating system and Great Bridge LLC for PostgreSQL.

Like its proprietary counterparts, PostgreSQL comes with a base set of tools. The difference is, with proprietary software, if the tool you need isn't included, you pay extra for it--if it's even available. But the Internet is a goldmine of quality open-source applications and add-ons that plug into PostgreSQL; everything from Java database connectivity (JDBC) tools to plug-in authentication modules for lightweight directory access protocols (LDAP). In a non-open source environment, these extras would add a heavy cost to the project, forcing managers to choose between price and functionality.

Open Source: Open to New Ideas

When a click-and-mortar client opts for an open-source solution, they gain virtually limitless opportunities to turn their raw data into invaluable business intelligence. Just Sports, for instance, knew that if it could classify its customers' by their shopping habits, it could determine who was a holiday buyer, who bought only during sales and so on. Armed with that information, Just Sports could tap its customers' buying potential. The raw data came from disparate sources, on-line, off-line and phone-in sales--any way a buyer could access Just Sorts merchandise. By using PostgreSQL to collect, store and cross-reference its data, the company hardwired its point-of-sales program to build customer profiles and configure the information into a customized, individualized marketing tool.

Aside from price, flexible functionality is open source's greatest gift. Seldom will a developer have to tell a client, "Nope, can't get there from here." For instance, Just Sports runs a promotional free-ticket giveaway through its web site. It works like this: Just Sports gives a "winning ticket" to the customer. The ticket has a URL on it and some specific contest identifiers that allow the customer to go to the web site, type in the code and find out what they've won. This is possible through the use of PHP scripting language and PostgreSQL together, which makes the site capable of generating portable document format (PDF) files on-the-fly. A key technology in the system is the open-source PDF generator that prints in a specific pattern, irrespective of the browser in use. So instead of a badly formatted, imperfect reproduction (which could cause some problems when the customer tries to use it), each winning ticket created by the company's web site is a perfect rendition of what it should look like.

The uses for this function go well beyond promotions; the same on-the-fly PDF technology is used in Just Sports' point-of-sale module to create customer invoices. The PDF function is a good example of how, without access to the source code, developers and managers would be trapped between the impossible and the unaffordable.

No Store is an Island

Not long ago Just Sports was a small company with a limited number of stores but expanding rapidly. At that point, it was stuck in a restrictive technology foundation, using a DOS-based point-of-sale system and running a flat-file proprietary database on a prehistoric legacy system. The configuration not only drastically limited the number of stores Just Sports could network but also provided poor data and poor reporting. In essence, every store was an island unto itself.

Just Sports was also suffering with an antiquated replication process for data equalization. It caused poor inventory counts and woefully inadequate daily sales reporting. Basically, their point-of-sale application software was devoid of any back-end functionality, which made it no better than a standalone cash register.

Just Sports undertook a project to create a custom point-of-sale system, a custom Intranet for corporate management functionality and an e-commerce web site, all woven into one common PostgreSQL back-end.

The final product is blended into a smoothly functioning, unified transactional database management system that analyzes every purchase and sale made by the company. On the e-commerce web site, for example, when customers join the Just Sports buying club, they receive a card in the mail through which they accumulate points for buying merchandise. The points count towards various company promotions, and each time they use the card, the information is fed into the database. Inside that PostgreSQL database, each customer's purchase history, inquiries, returns, promotion participation, likes and dislikes are all cross-referenced and reported to Just Sports' marketers. It's a powerful intelligence gathering system that makes Just Sports a better retailer and e-tailer.

If, for instance, a customer buys some Nascar memorabilia from a Just Sports retail outlet and then Nascar items go on sale sometime after that, they get an e-mail with a link to the e-commerce web site. If the customer buys something through the site, the order is immediately sent to the nearest store where it's packaged and shipped the next day. If it's a popular item that the company wants to keep in stock, inventory is checked through the Intranet. If the item's stock is low, more of it is automatically ordered from the vendor. Just Sports' open-source system is a fail-safe for managing a just-in-time supply chain that maintains an adequate but not bloated inventory--another huge cost-saver.

In the normal course of business, much integral information that was once lost is now intelligently collected for Just Sports to employ across its sales and administrative structure. This enables the company to constantly improve what it does and how it does it--from the retail and e-tail frontline workers to the back-office, big-picture strategists. By melding everything into a common backend system, the information flows to and from every part of the organization and is filtered for relevance in real time. No delays. In such a fully-integrated sales and customer relationship system, the details that distinguish better-than-average e-tailers and retailers don't fall through the cracks for one simple reason: there are no cracks.

All of which makes Just Sports very happy with its database management system and glad it listened to Gavin Roy's open-source evangelism. Now, because their front and backends run on auto-pilot, no one at the company worries whether Store 28 has uploaded its data for the day. Not even the manager at Store 28 gives it a thought, which frees him to concentrate on the carbon-based (human) elements that make and keep the company successful.

Robert Gilbert is the president and CEO of Great Bridge, a company formed to promote, market and provide professional support services for PostgreSQL, the open source database, and other best-of-breed open-source business solutions.

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