February 2003 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

EIS: Practice Makes Perfect

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Based in Downers Grove, Ill., Enterprise Information Solutions Inc. (EIS) is devoted to systems integration and open systems, open source computer engineering. The company' s transportation practice focuses on transportation and logistics solutions.

Marc Mitchell, one of EIS' s founders, holds the intriguing title of Transportation Practice Director. "When we founded EIS, we decided to embrace a vertical market approach to sales and marketing," he explains. "The first of these vertical-focused internal "practices' was transportation. We chose transportation first because I had been working for what had become a division of Federal Express for the past 10 years.

"As Transportation Practice Director, my responsibilities are to follow industry trends and to direct the application of our technology capabilities to ensure they meet the needs of our customers," Mitchell says. "I also search out industry members who could benefit from our expertise and accumulate previously developed solutions.

"I find myself spending far more time reading industry publications than doing anything my fellow techies would consider sufficiently "geekie' endeavors," he says.

Intense Dedication to Technology

At its core, EIS is an IT services organization, with a focus on custom application development projects. "We maintain an intense dedication to technical capability," Mitchell notes. This is illustrated by the fact that each member of the EIS staff holds a degree in computer science or computer engineering.

While dedicated to the technologies it deploys, EIS realized, even before the dot.com bubble, that establishing a sustaining line of business based solely on a specific technical competency—no matter how great the ability—was simply not practical. In the short term, it was too easy for the company to view its competitors within the sales process as equally expert.

"We see a significant chasm between many vendors' perceived experience and their ability to deliver. These issues only play out after the sales cycle has closed," Mitchell notes. "In the longer term, the rapid advance of technology means that any firm tying its future to a particular programming language or technical project will be able to do so only for a short time before the technical landscape changes."

One of EIS' s major offerings is its pickup dispatching computer system, a multi-user, client-server, graphical user interface (GUI) application that allows dispatchers to make pickup assignments to trucks in the field and manage the fulfillment of those pickups.

A key tenet of the application is that even non-technical people can use it easily. "Most major job tasks can be performed using only a mouse," Mitchell says. "One recent client, whose dispatching department had never used computers in the day-to-day execution of their jobs, implemented the EIS system in less than two weeks."

Pickup dispatching is a highly fluid process that requires many pieces of disparate information—pickup details, assessorial requirements, appointment information, individual truck capacity, fleet coverage—to be considered simultaneously. This creates the need to deploy some reasonably advanced—and technically challenging—user interface concepts in order to present as much information as possible.

"But you have to present that information in a way that doesn' t overwhelm the user and still allows the basic tasks at hand to be performed with simple and intuitive actions," says Mitchell.

The context within which the EIS dispatching application sits is in the center of the larger information and data flow that makes up the order entry and fulfillment process. EIS has developed an extensive set of tools to move data in a highly automated and structured way, in and out of existing systems. It has also built its own applications to provide pickup entry, billing, rating and manifesting for those cases where a new, unified approach is practical and beneficial to overall productivity.

"The dispatching application can be equally useful as an independent component integrated into an existing environment, or as one piece of a larger enterprise transportation management application," says Mitchell.

How does the Java programming language that EIS uses fit into its solutions? "Java is a modern, object-oriented programming language that promotes component development practices and code re-use," Mitchell explains. "It was designed from the ground up with security concerns in mind."

The Java classes can be downloaded via http and run across the Internet. Java is an open language—with source code available—including free development and deployment licensing. It has been embraced by many vendors such as Sun, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, and others.

"Components for all tiers—web, client-side programs, server-side programs, embedded devices—are built in the same language," Mitchell says. Java utilizes an Architecturally Neutral Binary Distribution Format (ANDF), which means the created applications can run on any computer architecture with a suitable Java Virtual Machine (JVM).

"Today, JVMs exist not only for the "usual suspects'—the various Windows variants and most UNIX variants—but also for Apple OS, RS/6000, and AS/400 platforms, even mainframes," says Mitchell. JVMs also are being embedded in cell phones and PDAs.

The result is a powerful language supported not by a single business entity but by a vast technical community. What' s more, a single coding approach can be used to develop applications that are consumed in a variety of ways—as client programs, background or batch jobs, or via web browsers.

"These applications can run in just about any hardware and operating system environment, and come with no up-front development or recurring licensing costs," says Mitchell.

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