Portable databases for MVP!

The growing power and memory capacity of personal digital assistants allow users to take along not just data, but entire databases with them.
Posted September 19, 2000
By

Neil Plotnick


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John Simon, VP, business development, Braxton Butterfield

While the NBA's Chicago Bulls and the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks were thrilling fans last season with battles on their home court at The United Center sports arena, the arena's management and the memorabilia vendors they contract with faced struggles of their own off the court.

Inventory management was out of control. To begin with, more goods were often delivered than ordered. Keeping track of the T-shirts, pennants, caps, and other memorabilia the arena's vendors sell from booths and in the aisles was nearly impossible; management didn't know what was selling and what wasn't until a month or more after the fact.

Adding to these challenges, taking monthly physical inventories was a hellish experience. To manually count merchandise and fill out paper inventory records often took 48 hours straight, and during that time, none of the memorabilia vendors were permitted to leave the premises. And even after this ordeal, the computer systems that managed inventory could not communicate with the arena's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, forcing the accounting department to input data manually from hardcopy inventory lists into the general ledger.

Arena management decided to go on the offensive. After looking at different alternatives, it called in Braxton Butterfield Consulting Inc. of Arlington Heights, Ill., to devise a solution that would eliminate manual procedures and streamline the flow of data among the facility's various disparate back-end systems. The back-end Oracle8i database runs on Silicon Graphics Inc.'s Irix servers, while Windows NT servers support the Platinum ERP suite from Epicor Software Corp., in Irvine, Calif. Users access the ERP system's accounting and inventory modules through a browser interfacing to a SilverStream application server, from SilverStream Software Inc., in Billerica, Mass., running on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris E250 UNIX server.

After evaluating the arena's needs, Braxton Butterfield put personal digital assistants (PDAs) equipped with mobile databases in the hands of the memorabilia vendors and receiving clerks. Now, instead of waiting for those grueling monthly inventory reports, management is getting a handle on merchandise the moment it comes in.

John Simon, VP, business development, Braxton Butterfield
United Center workflow

"Suppliers would often over deliver products. Instead of receiving items and accepting them based on purchase orders, only the receiving documents were used," says John Simon, vice president of business development at Braxton Butterfield.

Two mobile database architectures

For more than a decade, databases have been pushing outward from the glass house, first into departments and then onto desktop computers. It's at the point now where the power and functionality of the corporate database is, quite literally, in the hands of end users. These mobile databases are simply the hottest thing in database technology today.

Based on recent studies, by 2003, the number of wireless devices will surpass those of connected devices, most often desktop PCs. Analysts say the mobile or portable database market is ripe for expansion. Recent research from Evans Data Corp., a Scotts Valley, Calif., market research firm, shows that database developers are catching the craze. Of more than 500 database developers surveyed, Evans Data found that 33.5% of database developers are currently targeting wireless or mobile devices as deployment platforms, and over 52% expressed interest in infrastructure tools for creating mobile database management systems (DBMSs).

Today's mobile databases are generally deployed in one of two ways. The first way follows a thin-client model, in which users need only a browser to view information that has been extracted from the database and displayed as a Web page. In this scenario, the actual database need not be--in fact, often is not--resident on a PDA or portable computer.

According to Carl Olofson, program director, information and data management software, at International Data Corp. (IDC), in Framingham, Mass., this implementation provides the simplest, cleanest approach for IT management. "It make sense to provide a thin client because you don't have to do anything to maintain the devices in the field," says Olofson. "You just provide information through a remote connection, manage the data on a server, and then convert it at the source into a format compatible with the device and then transmit it to the device."


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