Web integration tool helps trucker automate cloud-centered workflow

Web “screen scraper” cleverly fills an application integration niche for companies like Pitt-Ohio whose workflow is heavily Web-driven, analysts say.

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The Web equivalent of the old screen-scraping software from minicomputer and mainframe days is proving to be an effective workflow and application integration tool at Pitt-Ohio, a Pittsburgh-based trucking and supply chain services company.

The Kapow Katalyst platform from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Kapow Software handles the hundreds of daily steps formerly performed by workers in the customer service and credit and collections departments at Pitt-Ohio. The company derives 90% of its business from less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments pieced together from orders from freight forwarders, brokers and direct customers.

“We had more and more customers and partners asking us to use websites to manage this,” said Darren Klaum, director of the company’s business systems group. “We use the Kapow software to virtualize what our users were doing, and it does it automatically on a scheduled routine.”

Katalyst uses extensible markup language (XML) and stored procedures to read tracking numbers from a database and goes out to the website of the freight payment company, entering the numbers and capturing the site’s responses. That information then goes into the custom software Pitt-Ohio uses to manage shipments.

Pitt-Ohio also uses Katalyst to read screens that customer service representatives use to handle package pickups for customers, including a few manufacturers, such as the automaker Volvo.

Kapow, robots!
Katalyst has a flowchart-driven development tool for building a “robot” to scan each website. After Kapow provided training and helped set up the first robot, programmers with moderate technical skills -- primarily the business analysts in Klaum’s department -- began using the Katalyst interface to model the manual steps in the flowchart, then highlighting data fields on Web pages and in the database that receives the Web data.

He credits Pitt-Ohio’s success with the tool to initial planning that identified common, reusable processes that work across sites. Managing variable information such as passwords in a special table avoided the need to frequently modify hard-coded passwords in the robots.

Katalyst usually runs smoothly but sometimes balks at especially complex sites or ones that use pop-ups, Klaum said.

When Katalyst encounters a problem, it’s usually with software that doesn’t run in browsers or employs custom programming, said Stefan Andreasen, Kapow Software’s founder and chief technology officer. Andreasen said Kapow has no plans to support Flash and is instead placing its bets on HTML5.

Faster, more accurate service
Customer service speed and accuracy have improved since the software went in, and new customers have been accommodated without new hiring, according to Klaum.

“It does it faster, it does it more often, it does it more consistently and accurately," Klaum said. "We’re seeing about 90 to 95% of what the customer-service representative had to do go away.”

In credit and collections, workers are freer to take on new accounts and perform more account analysis. Days outstanding on collections have dropped a whole day, and while Klaum can’t prove the correlation, he’s confident it exists because invoice problems are now easier to spot and fix. Reminders for past-due bills now go out in 15 days instead of 45.

Cloud data integration savior, or niche tool?
Katalyst doesn’t compete with cloud business-to-business (B2B) marketplaces like Ariba Inc.’s, instead playing a niche role in helping companies connect to them, according Andreasen. “We’re actually allowing these B2B portals to acquire customers without having to connect only to them,” he said.

It also opens doors for service providers like Pitt-Ohio and its freight-payment partners, which can offer their services cheaper, or charge a premium for them, because the typical back-end integration expense has been eliminated. “I would say Volvo doesn’t even know we’re doing this,” Klaum said.

Two industry analysts were impressed with Katalyst’s technology and say manufacturers with Web-based workflows like Pitt-Ohio’s could reap similar benefits. But they cautioned it is likely to remain a niche product because it isn’t designed to address the back-end data integration issues of cloud computing.

“When you have undefined APIs [application programming interfaces] or you don’t have a well-defined integration to an application, how do you integrate those applications?” asked Noel Yuhanna, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “They [Kapow] have a very strong value proposition.” Companies that want to do mashups of data from multiple cloud services might also find Katalyst useful, but they should first test it with their “worst-case” Web applications, he said.

“There’s a place for technology like this,” said Mark Beyer, research vice president at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based firm. “We used to call this screen scraping. As for it being a larger data-integration platform, it doesn’t seem to be more.”

Though he found the cloud integration software tool for designing robots easy to use, Beyer said nonprogrammers could face challenges with websites that change. “In terms of it being robust, you have to write your own scripts. Keeping your robot in sync with the website -- that is not in any way automated.”

Beyer said Kapow appears to have no direct competition, in part because most companies prefer to get the data behind websites by using methods such as direct file access. But smaller companies that lack the clout to demand such access might turn to Katalyst.

“This is really data acquisition,” he said, likening Katalyst’s role to the extract step in the extract, transform, and load (ETL) process in data management.

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