For safety and environmental protection,
government agen-cies around the world require chemical and pharmaceutical companies to
produce and maintain hazardous material documentation, a complicated-yet essential-task
for a multinational corporation, which manufactures thousands of products. Previously,
Switzerland-based Hoffman La-Roche printed and distributed safety datasheets for each
substance the company produces. This paper distribution system was costly and time
consuming. Datasheets were printed and mailed and the information would often become
obsolete before it reached its destination in one of the 100 countries where Hoffman
La-Roche conducts business. Employees around the world were never sure if they had the
most accurate and up-to-date information.
To solve this problem, La-Roche contacted
Ergon Informatik, a leading software development firm and systems integrator based in
Zurich, Switzerland. Ergon had designed and built La-Roche’s original product safety
information database. The database, from which the datasheets are generated, holds over
200,000 records of complex information including textual descriptions and molecular
diagrams of the chemicals La-Roche manufactures. The database holds approximately 1000
datasheets, each of which is maintained in German and English.
La-Roche asked Ergon to build
on the existing system to improve distribution of the safety information. After
eliminating several proprietary document handling packages for being too restrictive,
expensive and hard to use, Ergon chose to develop the system using Sun Microsystems’ Java
development platform. Through Java, Ergon created an application that would retrieve
product safety information from the corporate database and roll it up so it could be
instantly browsed by La-Roche employees worldwide. In this way, datasheet information
would remain current and much of the expense of distribution would be eliminated.
“Java offers the advantage of cross-platform deployment and combines many new
technologies, including object-oriented programming, module orientation, and garbage
collection,” explains Patrick Burkhalter, President of Ergon. “That’s why it
meets our development requirements so well.”
Variety of data types for any
La-Roche wanted a system that
would offer certain capacities beyond those of traditional web centric applications. The
system had to be cost-effective so the company could continue to collect and disseminate
data without the costs of printing and large-scale mailings. The new system also had to be
flexible enough to house a variety of data types including textual descriptions, graphics
of molecular composition and specific caution notices for a large number of substances.
Finally, the system had to operate across La-Roche’s heterogeneous computing environment,
so employees would be able to access it from any computing platform worldwide. In
considering all of these requirements, La-Roche and Ergon recognized that Java was an
ideal solution that could handle every aspect of the challenge ahead. Creating the
datasheets required significant organization within the database and additional
custom-built software to manage graphical representations. To handle the printing of
graphics such as molecular diagrams, Ergon developed a special drawing application. The
drawing files are stored along with the textual information in the database.
User interface in Java
Ergon used Java to develop an
applet that serves as an interface to the safety datasheets. La-Roche employees run a
Netscape browser on their desktops to access the applet on the company intranet. The
applet has an interface that allows them to search for datasheets by product number,
product name, chemical formula and safety datasheet number. Using the Java applet,
La-Roche employees can access the datasheets at any time, from anywhere.
The applet retrieves datasheet information
from the database through a custom middle-ware application Ergon developed. Ergon’s
middleware translates the requests of the Java applet into SQL queries on the Sybase
database server behind a firewall. The safety datasheets are then generated with a report
writer and converted to store on the web server for viewing, printing, and easy
Ergon evaluated several
cross-platform development tools, but found that the large overhead built into these
products greatly lengthened the learning curve and significantly reduced development
efficiency. Based on these evaluations, Ergon decided to write the user interface for
safety datasheets entirely in Java. Ergon selected Java as its primary language because it
is flexible and easy to use.
The company also found that it was
relatively easy to find Java-savvy programming staff in Switzerland. Many Swiss technical
schools use the Oberon object-oriented language as a teaching tool. Burkhalter found that
most Oberon programmers can start writing actual Java applications within two weeks of
study and training.
The deployment environment for
safety datasheet is a three-tiered architecture consisting of a Java applet GUI, a web
server running the middleware, and a back-end database. La-Roche employees are connected
via a wide-area network to the company intranet running in a TCP/IP environment. Users run
Netscape browsers from a variety of desktop platforms, including Windows and Apple
The web server is a Sun SPARC system
running Netscape Commerce Server. The Sybase database runs on a Sun SPARC server at
La-Roche’s headquarters and currently stores approximately 1000 datasheets with 156 views.
Each datasheet is maintained in German and English, and consumes about 50kb of disk space.
A total of 200 MB of data is backed-up daily.
Results and the future
With the new interface to
access the safety datasheets, La-Roche employees are assured of receiving data that is up
to date and easy to access. Although the company continues to generate paper documentation
as a backup, the electronic distribution process has made it possible for employees to
access the data they need instantly, from any office at any time.
Ergon believes that Java is critical to the
success of safety datasheet. Without it Ergon would not have had the flexibility necessary
to complete the project on time and within budget. “Our programmers working in Java
are nearly four times as productive as those working in more conventional languages,”
said Burkhalter. “The language is simple and the GUI interface is easy to use. You
don’t have to worry about memory leaks and printer errors like you do with C or C++. As a
rough metric, he notes, projects which took Ergon a month to program in C required only a
week in Java.
Ergon will shift the majority of its
programming to the Java development platform. Burkhalter estimates that within two years,
over 80% of Ergon’s work will be written in Java. He expects that the company will abandon
C and C++ almost entirely, except where it is necessary. Java provides Ergon with hardware
independence and ease of use that is not available from any other source. “Java is
not only the language of the future,” Burkhalter says, “It is the operating
system of the web.”
Microsystems (India) Pvt Ltd