A companys need for a shipping solution might span from the mail center, to employees shipping at their desktops, to production shipping in a warehouse, or all of the above. Regardless of the specific situation, the involvement of your Information Technology (IT) department is critical to the successful assessment and implementation of a shipping solution. IT will help determine whether the solution you are evaluating fits your companys technology requirements.


    Because shipping systems need to communicate with external carrier systems, and most shipping systems are integrated with other existing applications in your company (such as Order Management Systems, Warehouse Management Systems, Inventory Systems, etc.), IT can help ensure a successful integration. IT will definitely need to plan and allocate resources for this type of activity, so the more advanced notice given, the more smoothly the process will flow. The solution will probably be installed within your companys network, and IT can make this happen.


    If the vendor has a product white paper available, request a copy for your IT department. Generally speaking, a product white paper will provide enough high level information to get IT involved in the project and give them enough information to determine if there are any areas of concern.


    The major areas of consideration for your IT department will surround the companys network infrastructure, including security, hardware requirements, compatibility with other applications and operating systems and database compatibility. Therefore, ask your vendor the following questions prior to installation:


     1» How many application servers and database servers do
    you recommend?


    a. With a web-based solution, the answer here can vary. Most often two (one of each) is the recommendation, but it depends on your business needs, shipping volume, number of users, number of shipping locations and other criteria.

    b. Will the application server be shared with other applications? If so, make sure all applications will remain compatible with the servers operating system. For example, if another application now requires a newer server operating system and your shipping application is not yet certified for that version, what will you do?

    c. Should the database server be installed on a server separate from the application? In many cases, the database can be located on the application server, but it is usually better to have a separate database server. Should the database server or servers be clustered? This depends on your business needs. Keep in mind this is a safe way to run, but it does cost more.

    d. Should you share the database server with other company databases? This is fine if you can ensure all applications sharing the database server will always remain on compatible versions of the database. If not, its best to have a separate database server for your shipping application. Shipping is important to any business, for some it is what generates revenue so why risk problems?


    2» What server operating system do you recommend?


    a. Not all applications are compatible with all server operating systems. It is always best to ask. Additionally, ask if all service packs are required or if any service packs should be avoided.

    b. What are the vendors plans for compatibility with new server operating systems and service packs? Its always best to check with your vendor prior to applying a service pack or operating system upgrade.


    3» How much server memory is recommended?


    a. More is usually better, but at least make sure to meet the minimum requirements.


    4» Recommended server hard drive configuration?


    a. You will want multiple hard drives in some form of a RAID configuration. Be sure to have plenty of drive space, so buy the largest hard drives you can afford.


    5» Do you recommend a test system?


    a. Always have a test system. The test system is a duplicate of your shipping application and is used to test new processes and software updates (from the vendor) along with operating system updates. If you cannot afford duplicate server hardware, ask your vendor if they are compatible with software like VMware.


    6» Do you recommend load balanced servers?


    a. Based upon your shipping volumes and number of users, you may desire to use load balancing software across your application servers. Load balancing does just that; it spreads out the load across your application servers so all work is equally distributed across your servers. Ask your vendor if they prefer hardware or software load balancing.


    7» What are the shipping applications security requirements?


    a. Make sure you understand which ports and/or Internet URLs the shipping application needs open or available. For example: TCP and UDP ports 135-139 these ports are used for Microsoft file and print sharing.

    b. Determine which directories need read/write permission on the server.

    c. Ask your vendor about carrier communications requirements. Many carriers communicate electronically, such as via manifest transmission, and need access to specific ports and/or protocols. Once you understand the requirements, inform your IT group to determine if there are any concerns.

    d. Does the application have user logins with passwords? Is there a way to pre-load users and passwords from another application, or can they be synchronized in some way?

    e. Ask if the application supports lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP). LDAP is a networking protocol for querying and modifying directory services running over TCP/IP. LDAP is often used to maintain a telephone directory, which consists of a series of names (either of a person or organization) organized alphabetically, with an address and phone number attached. From a shipping application perspective, LDAP is useful for maintaining this common directory of addresses for your customer base.

    f. Single sign-on (SSO) is a form of authentication that allows a user to authenticate once and gain access to multiple applications, without logging in again. This feature is especially useful in a desktop shipping environment so users dont have to remember and maintain numerous logins and passwords.


    8» What forms of integration can you support?


    a. This is an important question because you need to make sure the applications and databases you plan on integrating also support the form of integration your vendor supports. For example, if you wish to use ODBC integration, do you have an ODBC driver for your current applications database, and does the vendors database support ODBC? If the answer to both is yes, make sure you have the most current database driver as these are frequently updated.

    b. If you wish to use batch integration, you need to ask your vendor which file formats they support. Common formats are CSV (comma separated value), fixed format and tab delimited.

    c. XML is another common integration method. If you wish to use this method, make sure your vendor supports XML communications.

    d. If the application you wish to integrate with is older technology, you may opt for an integration method called File Link. This is the method of reading and writing a single file per shipment.


    9» Is any third party software product part of the solution? If so, what are their requirements?


    a. Oftentimes, third party software is used as part of a total solution for shipping applications. Be sure to understand what products, if any, are being used along with any specific requirements similar to those mentioned previously. Its easy to see why its important to involve your IT department as early as possible when assessing a new shipping solution. A shipping system is a complex piece of software that will interact within your companys network. It needs to communicate to the carriers over the Internet, and it needs to be secure and compatible with your other applications and network infrastructure. All of these necessities require planning, resources and work, much of it by your IT department. By planning ahead and using this information, you can help yourself, your IT group and your company by proactively preparing required information and expediting the installation of your new shipping system.


    Joe Ferrazzo is a Senior Project Manager for Pitney Bowes Distribution Solutions. He can be reached at joe.ferrazzo@pb.com.