User story: Novellís iChain and the Bavarian farmersí association, the Bayrischer Bauernverband (BBV)

 

Novellís iChain manages access to the services and products of the BBV

The NDS eDirectory in the service of agriculture

The Bavarian farmersí association, the Bayrischer Bauernverband (BBV), is keeping up with the times. For a long time now, its members have been retrieving important information over the Internet and transmitting data via PC to the agricultural association. The connecting link behind the scenes: Novellís iChain and NDS eDirectory.

There are countless clichés concerning farmers and agriculture, most of them as long-standing as they are false. Now another prejudice is being removed: a seamless integration of agriculture and the Internet has now been achieved. By means of the electronic medium, the BBV offers its members comprehensive, current information and also Ė an example of eCommerce in its purest form Ė collects user fees.

A broad spectrum of services

In agriculture, to a greater extent than in most other businesses, yields and profits are dependent on the weather. It is thus not surprising that reliable meteorological forecasts are of fundamental importance. Since 1994, through its subsidiary the BBV Computer Service, the BBV has provided forecasts in cooperation with the German weather service. The forecasting service was first implemented in the form of fax polling. BBV members who had subscribed to the fax weather service could obtain a current forecast for their area via the attention key of the fax machine. The system functioned smoothly, however the security of the accounting procedures could not be absolutely guaranteed. For the team at the BBV Computer Service this was not a serious cause for concern, but was nevertheless important enough to be kept in mind. This issue of security became more significant when the BBV also started offering the fax weather service online. "From the beginning, the fax weather service was designed as a fee-based service, since timely weather information is expensive, and our service should not be based on out-of-date weather data," recalls Josef Wiedemann, the business manager of the BBV Computer Service. "At first we identified users by means of the source identifier signal. When the service was also made available over the Internet, a username/password combination was used. Neither method was one hundred percent secure."

In addition to the fax weather service, the BBV offers a series of other services. There is an individual accounting service for farmers, special software for recording fertilizer balances, and diverse literature and CD-ROMs on the subjects of agriculture and agricultural meteorology. Although he had no specific need in mind, when Josef Wiedemann paid a visit to the Novell booth at CeBIT 2000, he found himself at the right place at the right time. A marketing engineer described the new iChain software, which allows the NDS eDirectory to communicate with applications and other databases by means of XML. Novellís iChain is part of the eDirectory initiative, permitting the NDS eDirectory to function as a central database not only for the Intranet, but also for Internet applications. Josef Wiedemann was enthusiastic: "I realized immediately that this system would be ideal for meeting our present and future requirements for a secure, modular configuration of services. An expansion of our services was pending in any case, as soon as the problems of authentication and administration could be solved. That same day we reached an agreement with Novell to begin a pilot project, to test the performance capabilities of iChain."

Clear structure facilitates implementation

The planning phase was begun in May 2000, with the goal of being able to demonstrate a functioning system at Bavariaís main agricultural fair, the Zentral-Landwirtschaftsfest 2000 (ZLF), to be held in September. "At the ZLF we can reach a large number of members in a very short time," says Josef Wiedemann, explaining the reason for the tight schedule. "It is the ideal opportunity for introducing the services to our customers." Four eCommerce offerings are to be available in the initial phase: the fax weather service, an online store for books and CDs, a software-on-demand service and an online feed market. The Munich office of the BBV Computer Service was selected as the location for the actual hardware. Two servers are sufficient, one to function as the proxy server, and the other to act as the community server for members. "We foresee a high demand for the services and have chosen the hardware with this in mind," says Josef Wiedemann of the network environment. "A Primergy 470 server with one gigabyte of RAM and the WebAccelerator cache server from Fujitsu Siemens acts as the proxy. At the moment it is still hardly used, but with this system we are prepared for the future." The implementation went smoothly, and for the past few weeks the test operation has been providing information about the new eCommerce offerings. The present situation: The iChain solution is making a significant contribution to user acceptance. There are no tedious registration forms to fill out, nor is there duplicate storage of data. Josef Wiedemann explains: "As far as the data for the eDirectory is concerned, we have restricted ourselves to the essentials. The name, password, membership number and parts of the address are enough to allow us to identify the member. The identification is then transmitted via iChain to the individual services. Each of the services has its own database available in any case." Depending on which service has been selected, a particular home page is displayed to the customer, so as to eliminate frustration and problems of denied access. At the moment, security when logging on is provided by a username/password combination; however the BBV has ambitious plans. "Authentication is a very important issue for us," emphasizes Josef Wiedemann. "Every BBV member has a membership card which will expire in 2001 and must then be renewed. We are seriously considering making the next card a smart card, possibly with cash card functions. The card could then be used for authentication with the eDirectory, by means of a smart card reader at the PC." The plan is to make use of a trust center, so that the authentication will also be valid for the legally binding services of the BBV. The BBV accounting software is set up by specialized tax consultants and accounting firms. At the moment, the program processes some 20,000 accounts annually. Even a PDA, 3Comís Palm, is part of the system. For instance, delivery notices and invoices can be filled out on the Palm and then transferred directly into the accounting system. An identification verified by the trust center would be legally valid, and thus could also be used for working with the accounting software. It has not yet been decided how members would be authenticated with regard to the trust center. Josef Wiedemann states: "Either we provide the trust center with the data for our registered users, or we go the route of authentication by presenting ID at a post office."

SSL used for secure connections

The NetWare server for data identification is set up as the proxy server. Thus, requests for access are first channeled through the secure connection, rather than being sent directly to the individual services. After a member has logged on to the proxy and undergone authentication, an SSL connection is established. Since all standard browsers provide full support for SSL, no additional software is required on the userís PC. Of course this system means that a user who is not yet registered will be denied access. There is therefore another computer, the iChain community server, which gives users the opportunity of registering themselves. In order to register, the user fills out a simple form, providing at least his or her name and a password. After the form has been submitted, it is processed by a Java servlet, which inserts the userís record into the NDS eDirectory context. Both the administrator and the new community member are then informed by email of the success or failure of the registration. Once registered, the BBV member can choose from among various options offered by the iChain system: discussion forums, news, document management and other services of the BBV. Still in the planning stages is an update for the software which every farmer must use to reconcile his database of cattle birth records Ė required since the debate concerning BSE Ė with the central database of the agricultural association. Many BBV members would also like to have a portal where they could publicize special offerings of their farms, such as farm holidays, on the Internet. There is likewise interest in sharing experiences related to specific agricultural concepts such as organic crop production or grassland management.

In order to access fee-based or other restricted-access data or services, the user must already be registered. Once the userís method of payment and account data are known, the offerings on the network become available. User fees for the fax weather service are assessed on a per-use basis, whereas for the software-on-demand only a single payment for the activation of the software is required. A request key is integrated into the program, so that the user can either download the software or install it by means of floppy disk. The first time the program is started, the user must submit the key. For the BBV, this provides a very cost-effective method of distributing software, with minimal logistical complications. Users with no Internet access can also obtain the key by telephone, but there is an increasing trend towards electronic distribution. Josef Wiedemann reports: "There are no precise figures for the number of farms equipped with PCs and Internet access. We estimate that by now, 20 to 30 percent have online access. In most cases, the PC is initially used by individuals, often by the children. Only later does the PC come to be used as a tool for daily business." In order to support communication between the BBV and its members, iChain and eDirectory offer users individual email addresses of the form: Name@mybbv.de or Name@meinbbv.de. At the ZLF, members can reserve their chosen email addresses on the spot.

Expandable system

Because of its flexibility, Novellís iChain stimulates the BBV to keep expanding its offerings. In addition to the distribution of updates and new programs for a fee, other applications are being discussed. "Many of our members use a PDA such as Palm for on-the-spot recording of information pertaining to the current job," explains Josef Wiedemann. "As a rule, a cell phone capable of transmitting and receiving data is also at hand. By means of an IP connection, it would be possible to access a special Palm version of the fax weather service directly from the field." This concept was also presented as a demo at the ZLF. Of course iChain provides web pages which function as a portal to other German agricultural associations. Josef Wiedemann is also considering further expansion of the fee-based services. The BLV publishing house publishes many books and trade journals that are of great interest to farmers. "If the user is authenticated by the NDS, we can permit access to every imaginable service. Subscribers could read their trade journal online even before it appears in print. By means of XML, communication with external databases is no problem, and above all is implemented very quickly. Whether we are transmitting user data to the accounting database of the BLV publishing house or deducting the fee for a software update, the basic procedure remains the same." Everyone concerned benefits from the BBVís new orientation towards the online media. The BBV itself profits from being able to provide its services at less expense, with a uniform security system. The crucial consideration for the members is that they can quickly and securely access information and applications which are tailored exactly to their needs. A real plus for the BBV and its 180,000 members.