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Small Business Solutions

The only difference between my gas station and Wal-Mart is that they have more suppliers, more products, with more customers

Several years ago I was thinking about buying a small gas station in my local town. I went to my friend Gregory Z., a successful businessman in this field, and asked him, "How do I start a gasoline business?" He gave me simple but wise advice: "You know nothing about gas, but know a lot about computers. Keep doing what you're doing. Just be a little better than others".

I'm trying to follow his advice but I keep thinking how would I apply my software skills had I bought such a business. So here I am again asking for your help, advice, and experience: let's automate my virtual gas station.

The Setup
I've borrowed the money from a bank and now I have:

  • A four-car gas station
  • A small convenience store (coffee, cigarettes, milk, newspapers)
  • A repair shop that changes oil, brake pads, and tires
  • Six employees: one American, two from India, one from Russia, and two from Pakistan; one employee speaks English, and the others speak well in their native languages. I think they have work permits.
  • Three decent Wintel computers
  • $1,000 USD software budget
Service-Oriented Architecture
The only difference between my gas station and Wal-Mart is that they have more suppliers, sell more products, and have more customers. But I'm facing similar challenges: I need to deal with various suppliers of gas, food products, and car parts. I also need to have accounting and payroll systems. That's why I'm planning to architect a system that has different services communicating with each other. I need a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

In a perfect world, all service providers use the same protocol, which is as challenging as having all my employees use only the English language. My employees are trying hard, because for them it's a matter of surviving. Initially they are exposing just a minimal number of public services like fillItUp, getCash, processPlastic, marlboroLightsPlease, oilChange, and takeTip. Smarter employees quickly add more services to their vocabulary to become more competitive. Each of these coarse-grained services may consist of several smaller steps, but consumers don't need to know about them.

Service Coupling
When the guy who sold me the business gave me a pile of different forms to use with suppliers, I thought to myself, "Tight coupling in action." I need to know where these suppliers are located, their services, and how to request them. If a particular vendor changes its request form (the protocol), I'll need to get a new one, otherwise I may lose this service. I'd rather be sending a message to some destination saying, "Yakov needs 1,000 gallons of 93-octane gasoline." Expected response: several price quotes from different vendors. This would be an example of decoupled services. I don't know who they are and they don't know who I am, but we've dynamically discovered each other. I've heard that Jini could help me with this. Is this right? Anyway, in a loosely coupled system a service requestor needs to know the name of the service, what data to provide, and what to expect back, but it should be easy to switch from one provider to another.

Messaging and Transport
One of the best ways to request and receive services is by using asynchronous messaging. JMS is an excellent API, but you still need a transport to deliver your messages between the services, for example, message-oriented middleware (MOM). IBM and Tibco offer great MOM products, but I'd need to sell my gas station and get another loan just to pay for it. No, I need to find something for free.

Web Services
Web services seems to be a decent way to arrange my interaction with external suppliers using a free Internet-HTTP-WSDL-UDDI-SOAP combo. If my external vendors will start publishing their gasoline-tires-milk quotes, I'll write a program that will automatically be looking for the best deal in my neighborhood. Can Eclipse IDE help me with automatic generation of all supporting files for Web services?

OOP Plus AOP
It goes without saying that I'm thinking objects (thank you, Bruce). When I close my eyes, I clearly see the classes Product, Order, and Customer…but after reading about aspect-oriented programming (AOP) these objects become blurry. But AOP is a way to go and I'll dig more in this direction.

Storing My Data
I need a free DBMS. It doesn't have to be fancy and implement sophisticated SQL constructs. Inner and outer joins plus indexing will do. Coding business logic in stored procedures is not in fashion these days. Hibernate looks nice for object-relational mapping. Is this my best option?

Front End
For thin Web clients I'm planning to learn AJAX. If Google did it, so can I. How about rich clients? Swing is not there yet; SWT looks better; .NET is the best but isn't free. Should I spend my money on VB.NET? But I don't know VB! Let me ask my Russian employee Alex if he knows it. He looks like a PhD (does he really have a work permit?).

Help
I'd love to hear your input to this new column. You don't need to write any code, but rather suggest some affordable tools and architectural solutions for my small business. Just provide your feedback to the online version of this article at http://jdj.sys-con.com/read/108260.htm.

More Stories By Yakov Fain

Yakov Fain is a co-founder of two software companies: Farata Systems and SuranceBay. He authored several technical books and lots of articles on software development. Yakov is Java Champion (https://java-champions.java.net). He leads leads Princeton Java Users Group. Two of Yakov's books will go in print this year: "Enterprise Web Development" (O'Reilly) and "Java For Kids" (No Starch Press).

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Most Recent Comments
Tamizhan 07/16/07 02:49:46 AM EDT

Hi Yakov,

It may be a very late mail to suggest your small business solutions.I believe that the following open source softwares can be used to create cross platform multitiered application for any small business.

OS : Linux

Fron End : JSPs,Struts,Ajax.
Swing(For Stand alone Machines)

Back End : MySQL or DBMaker

Middleware : Stateless Session Bean,MDB,Java Webservice

Server : JBoss

Object Relational Mapping : Hibernate

Logging : Log4J

IDE : Eclipse,Netbeans

Build tool : Ant

Version Control : CVS

Bug Reporting tool : Bugzilla

Many Systems running successfully using the above mentioned tools.I don't know the Free MOM tools and Content Management tools.

Developers : Free Lance Programmers!. If you make BIG MONEY after successful Launch of Business or Application,You can PAY money to Free Lance Programmers.

Gabriel 12/21/05 03:34:53 PM EST

Many people here didn't get the point quite right. 1st, there is no gas station. 2nd, this article is about trying to find ways to build an IT infrastructure for small business, which are low on budget. What development tools and technologies best fit in this scenario? Based on this, what is the best way to acomplish the needed tasks? Remember, this article is about how to develop software for the small business, using open source software¹, based on the same technologies used by the big guys.

¹ I think open standards are more important than open sourse, but none of them are problems for Java.

nick patel 12/13/05 03:49:44 PM EST

plese let me know how much cost to build new gas station plese email or call 865 690 4670

nick patel 12/13/05 03:49:39 PM EST

plese let me know how much cost to build new gas station plese email or call 865 690 4670

nick patel 12/13/05 03:49:38 PM EST

plese let me know how much cost to build new gas station plese email or call 865 690 4670

Ted Weismann 09/14/05 05:26:14 PM EDT

Hi Yakov,

For the front end, have you considered using Sun's Java Studio Creator? It combines 100% Java standards with visual programming, e.g. JavaServer Faces for visual UI design and simplified coding, JDBC Rowsets for drag-and-drop data access and visual query building, and Java API for XML Web services, for simplified access to WSDL based services. It includes drag-and-drop UI design and access to databases and Web services, as well as visual page flow design - all for $99.

Jay 09/07/05 09:05:21 PM EDT

Hi Yakov,

Try using ServiceMix which is an open source Enterprise service bus product by Apache. Its very nice tool for integration and they use JBI (Java Business Integration) and JSR 208 and EDA (Event Driven Architecture) which makes it best ESB framework for SOA i.e SOA + EDA. You can deploy this on JBOSS which is also open source application server.

Thanks
Jay Poldiya

moshe sheleg 08/29/05 06:08:05 AM EDT

Shalom Yakov,

Regarding you gas station software needs, i would be happy to offer our services.

Please visit http://www.siteron.com for more information.

Do what you do best, outsource the rest...
Moshe

Yakov 08/05/05 01:53:20 PM EDT

Greg,

Having done both Java Swing and .Net, why you do not recommend .Net? What's wront with it?

Also, what's so good about JBoss in terms of monitoring? JMX is available in any J2EE compliant server. I wonder what kind of monitoring JBoss provides off the shelf that does not require additional programming?

Best,
Yakov
http://www.weekendwithexperts.com

Greg 08/04/05 02:29:14 PM EDT

Interesting way to write an article. It will be fun to see how it turns out.

Looks like you are trying to determine some tools to use first. You should probably define your business needs first. Anyway, here are some suggestions for tools...

For the front end, you asked about using either .Net or Java. I'm currently using both Java and .Net. I have a lot of Java Swing experience and some (<6mo) experience with .Net. From what I've seen of .Net 1.1, I would go with Java unless you find a Windows specific need that you cant solve in Java. If you don't need a super-rich front end, you should just make it a web-based client.

If you are looking for free databases consider MySQL or Cloudscape. However, those are only relational databases. Why not consider using a OO DB?

Another thing you will need is a good way to run, configure and monitor your system. Since you are looking for free open source stuff, you should look at JBoss. It makes a great micro-kernal for running Java as Managed Beans. JBoss lets you control and monitor the beans with JMX.

Bill McCuistion 07/29/05 09:19:02 AM EDT

1. You won't be the same as the others, as you'll use your JAVA skills to integrate your unique twists into the QB framework, such as your SOAP service for scouting lowest-cost / best value suppliers. JAVA works just fine with the QBSDK, which is XML-based. Included in the QBSDK is a SOAP-to-COM bridge, so your JAVA code can run anywhere.

2. When you sell the station next year, you'll likely retain a consulting contract to maintain the custom apps you developed. You'll also likely be able to negotiate a higher sales price due to the increased profitability due to your "special" integratons with QB for general accounting, purchaing, point-of-sale, credit card processing, payroll processing and customer relationship managment.

3. Run QB on Linux using Cross-Over Office. Use LAMP/J for apps. OpenBooks, the open-source alternative to Quicken is not really (yet) an alternative to QB, and you've now got a gas station to run. You'll have enough to keep you busy with the add-in modules to not have to worry about how the system calculates sales taxes, payroll taxes and on-line banking using OFX. In other words, use Open Source where it makes sense, and use the classic "Make or Buy" decision to guide that decision. $800 for the QB/POS package license gets you a lot of functionality in an accounting system.

As for your need to mix purposes with the magizine articles, the other stakeholders in the gas station might not be happy with sub-optimization of the gas-station business for your side-line businesses.

4. The decision to use QB is not at all different from using SAP (or Lawson or whatever) and needing to integrate with it, except that the little guy usually can not take the risk of custom development in the same way the the big guy does.

Look for the competitive advantage where you can get it. Make the other guys *think* you're running a stock version of QB. Make them wonder how you keep finding the best purchasing deals. Make them wonder why you have customer loyalty and are able to charge a premium for regular gas. Make them wonder why this and that. Let them make mistakes, while you take baby-steps learning to run a gas-station. Join a local gas-station owners support group, so you can pick-up tricks. Listen to their pain-points, which will give you ideas on how technology might help you prevent / address them before they become your pain points.

You will have a hard time being a consultant to yourself. Get your chart-of-accounts in order. Get your item master set-up. Get your vendor list set-up and get manilla files going too. Get your bar-coder and credit card reader working. You're in retail and need to at least last a year.

BTW -- Reportedly, the largest concentration of bootleg QB software is in the former Soviet countries. It's very likely that your help already knows how to use QB. It was an easy switch from Communism to Capitalism for most of those guys. If the CIA had dropped QB into the Soviet Union 20-years ago, the cold war might have ended a lot sooner.

Yakov Fain 07/29/05 08:46:56 AM EDT

I like Bill's comment!

Most likely QuickBooks can solve most of my needs, but...
1. I do not want to be the same as any other gas station owner on the block.
2. I do not want to cut my ties with the Java world. If my gas business won't become profitable in a year, I'll sell it to a QuickBooks user and return to coding in Java, and my skills will be up to date.
3. I want to understand the world of the open source software and the next column (JDJ, Sep '05) will have an interview with one of my famous customers who happen to be a best selling author in this field.
4. By having this column, we can discuss real world problems that small guys face as opposed to talking all the time from the perspective of large scale enterprises.

Bill McCuistion 07/28/05 01:01:19 PM EDT

Dude! Get a copy of QuickBooks and the QB Point-of-Sale system and be done with it!

Then, if you need to integrate applications, there's a great SDK that let's you do this.

If you need to get a programming fix once you have QB in place, see my website at http://qbopen.com or go to http://developer.intuit.com.

Now, I didn't write QuickBooks, and don't really wish to have to defend it, but if you've got to sell gas and need an immediate off-the-shelf solution in your price range, then go to Best Buy and get the QBPOS bundle, which also comes with a Dell computer.

Branden 07/26/05 06:56:18 PM EDT

Seems like a few assumptions in the article were a little.. off base.
-Web services: I prefer Netbeans, as from my experience its a lot farther ahead than Eclipse nowadays.
-Database: Mysql is free, quick and easy for this type of thing. Hibernate is also a good choice.
- Front end: Check out DWR for Ajax, www.getahead.ltd.uk/dwr/. Also, "Swing is not there yet, swt looks better". Have you actually looked at either of them, or are you just on crack? The only thing that SWT does well is Eclipse. Take a look at the SWT mailing lists, or the bug lists, and you'll notice there are all kinds of problems. Swing is mature, stable, and ready to go - use it. Also, why are you asking JDJ readers about .Net? I'm sure many of them have used it but really..

Using tomcat, hibernate, mysql, a free operating system, and OS jms products you should be able to do this project with a minimal budget.

jay patel 07/25/05 10:27:56 PM EDT

jms: many open source products available (jboss,objectweb???,etc)
db: postgresql, firebird, mysql
if u r considering .net for anything, don't bother w/ vb.net if u r a java developer, use c#
vendors: get one gas vendor to publish in xml to encourage the others to do so as well. perhaps that is some side work in and of itself.
front end: if browser based provides the solution, why consider thick client?

Scott Fingerhut 07/21/05 12:27:00 AM EDT

AJAX? Check out InfoWorld's Jon Udell speaking to TIBCO and recording a live demo of the AJAX tool TIBCO General Interface -- something anyone can use (without a Google budget) to develop compelling rich internet applications.

Here's a link to the InfoWorld blog: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2005/05/25.html

Interested in getting your hands on the priority preview version? Join the AJAX Accelerator Program: http://www.tibco.com/mk/2005/gi.jsp

James Brockman 07/20/05 09:27:07 AM EDT

>> For thin Web clients I'm planning to learn AJAX. If Google did it, so can I. How about rich clients? Swing is not there yet; SWT looks better; .NET is the best but isn't free. Should I spend my money on VB.NET? But I don't know VB! Let me ask my Russian employee Alex if he knows it. He looks like a PhD (does he really have a work permit?). <<

Actually, .NET is free, it's just Visual Studio.NET you pay for. Download the .NET SDK from MSDN, then for rich client development download SharpDevelop at http://sharpdevelop.com, or opt for ASP.NET WebMatrix at http://www.asp.net/webmatrix/ if you're thinking of browser front-ends to your apps. Then, enjoy.

SharpDevelop's support for VB is secondary to its C# support, but not only is SharpDevelop open source, but it is not limited to .NET projects.

JDJ News Desk 07/20/05 08:02:08 AM EDT

Small Business Solutions. Several years ago I was thinking about buying a small gas station in my local town. I went to my friend Gregory Z., a successful businessman in this field, and asked him, 'How do I start a gasoline business?' He gave me simple but wise advice: 'You know nothing about gas, but know a lot about computers. Keep doing what you're doing. Just be a little better than others'.

Mark 07/20/05 07:43:30 AM EDT

Having done plenty of Java and VB6(<) and .Net, I would say that Swing is more than there and .Net is definitely not better(overall). If decide you do want to do .Net DON'T do VB.Net. Do C#, if you have a Java background.

For doing AJAX, I would suggest looking Echo2.