Better Spool File Management Can Result in Big Savings

Document Management
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Automating reports and distributing documents electronically is both good for the planet and great for the bottom line.


We don't have detailed demographics on all our MC Press Online readers, but my guess is there aren't too many who were working on computers in the early 1960s when IBM coined the term "spool file."


The acronym stands for Simultaneous Peripheral Operation On-Line (SPOOL), but folklore has it that the name actually was conceived after the term "spool" came into widespread use, since a spool is what is used to wind magnetic tape.


Before multitasking was invented, computers could run only one job at a time. So if you wanted to print a job, it would consume the computer's full time until the printing finished. Printers were slow compared to CPUs, so operators would offload the job onto a magnetic tape drive, which was considerably faster than printing it. When the processing job was finished, the tape "spool" would then be removed from the computer and mounted onto a tape drive attached to a printer.


This, of course, was way before my time (ahem), and even if I had been alive, I would not have been working around complicated electronic equipment, such as computers. I would have been dreaming about girls. But for the benefit of the historians in the group, the IBM-360 family of computers was announced in April 1964.


Fast-forward to 2008 and consider how we handle spool files today. They are still needed to relieve work on the central computer, but we don't generally offload them to magnetic tape. What we do with them today, however, should be just about anything except print them. Let's face it. When it costs 6 cents a page to print a document, and you're printing 20,000 pages a month, you're really inviting someone to sneak up behind you and accuse you of not only wasting company resources, but, nowadays, wasting the world's resources as well. Think of all the trees! By the way, the 20,000 pages will cost about $1,200. At today's rate of inflation, that figure is probably already higher.


Wouldn't it make more sense instead of printing the spool file to convert the document therein to, say, a PDF file and email it to the recipient? Now you're thinking smart (well, smarter). Let's see, do you think there might be an application or two out there for the System i that could do that? Looking in the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide, we see there are more than 150 listings for document management/contact management/imaging solutions. Among the more familiar names in the industry offering solutions are IBM Lotus, ACOM Solutions, Help/Systems, Quadrant, RSS Software, S4i, inform Decisions, Pluta Brothers, Computer Keyes, Seagull Software, looksoftware, Business Computer Design (BCD), and many others that could be mentioned (visit the Buyer's Guide for a complete list of companies with whom MC Press Online is familiar).


One product that has been around for more than a decade and has a large install base is Catapult from BCD. The company has spent almost an entire year completely rewriting Catapult from top to bottom, and the V7 beta has just been made available for download and testing from the BCD Web site. If you are a Catapult user, you will want to check out the speed of the new release, which, depending on the number of spool files being processed, can be up to 40 times faster than Catapult V6.


The application's user interface has been significantly improved, and the program is not only more stable today but has been re-engineered to integrate with future technologies, including new operating systems, according to BCD. Among improvements in the product is a complete redesign of the Grab Rule Editor to make grab-rule maintenance simpler and more intuitive. Grab Rules are Catapult's user-defined selection criteria that specify which spooled files to download, how they will be distributed and to whom, and what format the files will take: Adobe PDF, rich text format (RTF), plain text (ASCII), TIF, HTML, XLS, etc. Catapult also can download reports in various formats, including data format (without page breaks and blank lines), report format (with breaks and blank lines), and rich format (with breaks, line spacing, format tags, and overprinting). It will auto-file and auto-index reports and documents to the Web into organized folders within BCD's Nexus Enterprise Content Management solution, thus permitting unlimited search indexes based on content.


For those unfamiliar with Catapult, it is a document and report management solution that reviewers have described as a PC and System i client/server application to allow users to print, fax, email, publish to the Web, and archive spool files from System i and PCs. It gives users an added ability to extract reports, and even parts of reports, before converting them to different file formats. It supports adding graphical form overlays for creating professional-looking reports. It interfaces with a number of BCD products, including the report-mining tool, EZ-Pickin's, which permits the automatic extraction of data into Excel, Access, Word, or other applications. Here is what the person in charge of the new rewrite had to say about the effort:


"We spent over 2.5 person-years rewriting Catapult from the ground up," said Duncan Kenzie, president of ExcelSystems Software Development, the technical development arm of BCD. "We developed the client component in Microsoft C# .NET and the System i component in native ILE code so it would be fully compatible with i5/OS and modern Windows environments," he said. "The new version is exceptionally stable and scaleable. We are seeing exponential improvements in speed to distribute spool files.


"For example," said Kenzie, "it now takes only 1.46 minutes to process 1,000 spool files on our (System) 520 compared to 42 minutes in V6. We have also completely redesigned the entire user interface, including the console, and the Grab Rule Editor, to improve the flow when creating new distribution rules, and to establish clearer links between related functions. Selecting spool files visually is now much more powerful, too.


"We're hoping for broad feedback on the beta release and invite existing Catapult users, as well as others considering the product, to register and download V7 free from the BCD Web site. We expect general availability by next month."


What do users say about Catapult, and why is it popular? For one thing, its automated distribution features can save users time. More important, it can save money by dramatically reducing printing and mailing costs, with many users reportedly saving thousands of dollars per month in printing costs, says BCD. Its security features prohibit unauthorized users from creating grab rules to look at data they don't have permission to view, and log data that shows who distributed what documents to whom can be saved to show a complete audit trail of data access. So it's HIPAA- and SOX-compliant. No programming is needed to use Catapult, and its polling functions don't impact System i resources because work is offloaded to the PC for splitting, archiving, or emailing spool filed reports.


The Catapult solution works fine alone, but its capabilities expand greatly when used as part of BCD's integrated solution suite that includes Nexus Portal, EZ-Pickin's, Spool-Explorer, WebSmart, and ProGen Plus. It's interesting to note that even WebSmart can be used together with Catapult to create a Web front-end to existing RPG report programs creating spool files. WebSmart brings up the existing report and activates Catapult commands that convert and distribute the spool files.


It appears that BCD decided to take the higher, yet more challenging (and expensive), road with its rewrite of Catapult. Users have a chance now with the beta release to see the results of the company's effort.