Length: 9 minutes; File type: Windows Media Video
Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Inc. has an ambitious vision statement:“offering the best food experience to every customer, every time.”
Executives at the Mississauga, Ont.-based grocery retail chain say to live up to this mandate, all Longo’s 15 stores need to be stocked with fresh produce, in the right quantities, in response to constantly changing customer demands.
And this, in turn, requires effective and timely exchange of data between Longo’s various software applications.
Until very recently, such data interchange was virtually impossible owing to lack of integration between the disparate systems that comprised Longos IT infrastructure.
The problem only intensified with the phenomenal growth Longo’s experienced in its operations over the past few years.
For instance, in August 2004, the company acquired Grocery Gateway, an online grocery delivery service. With the acquisition came the need to re-evaluate Longo’s existing IT systems and infrastructure. No system talks directly through itself anymore. All communication between apps goes through BizTalk.John Charleson>Text
John Charleson, director of IT and supply chain management at Longo’s recalls the huge technology challenges the grocery retail chain had to respond to.
“Longos in the past, bought best of breed,” he says. “So we had a number of different applications acquired from many different vendors over the years.”
As data could not be easily exchanged between these disparate, non-integrated applications, the result was inefficient, time-consuming business processes.
Charleson said Longo’s IT department expended around 40 per cent of its time supporting a motley of interfaces between discrete applications.
“We would get calls from users saying: ‘get this info over to my system’ – and we’d have to go back and see why that interface for that particular application failed on that given day. We spent a lot of time fixing those issues. Every application spoke to another directly and there was nothing in the middle.”
This lack of a central “integration hub” between applications also made the process of placing and receiving orders from vendors a laborious and time-consuming chore, as it required staff to manually input data in several different applications.
To resolve its integration woes, Longo’s decided to move to a services-oriented architecture (SOA) based on loosely connected interfaces between systems, replacing cumbersome point-to-point vendor driven integration between applications.
Charleson says Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 was selected as the cornerstone of this new SOA architecture. “One of the main reasons was we already had a significant investment in Microsoft technologies in our developers, our infrastructure, our databases and programming skills; so Microsoft was a natural fit.”
He says Longo’s data can now be seamlessly exchanged between applications, with BizTalk Server 2006 acting as an integration hub.
An example of this, the Longo’s exec says, is the data interchange between the Warehouse Management System or WMS (that regulates all stocks within Longo’s warehouse) and the firm’s Retail.Net ERP system. “The WMS feeds directly into our ERP solution, through BizTalk.”
BizTalk also acts as a central conduit for information exchange between the ERP system and the points of sale (POS) — which are the cash registers within all Longo’s stores.
According to Charleson, detailed information on each customer transaction is transmitted from the POS back to the ERP sytem. “That way we know what the demand for a specific product is, and can make sure we have the right products in the store in a timely fashion.”
The same principle is at work when the Longo brothers – Joey and Mike – shop for store supplies at the Ontario Food Terminal every day.
The brothers use the “Market PO application” – a tool specially created for them to transmit to the stores, data on items they’ve ordered at the Ontario Food Terminal.
“And all that data too goes through the BizTalk piece in the middle,” notes Charleson. “So no system talks directly through itself anymore. All communication between apps happens via BizTalk.”
The Longo’s executive says since the new system was rolled out, the processing of batch retail changes – including cost and item description changes, and the adding or de-listing of products – has also been dramatically speeded up.
Previously, these changes would take up to seven hours to generate and would then need to be processed by an administrator.
With BizTalk in place, he says, these changes are automatically transmitted to the company’s ERP system, and this can happen anytime during the day. What’s more, he said, changes or updates don’t need to be made in multiple systems…just one.
“We do the updates in our ERP, and it gets passed down to all the different systems that need the price change information. For instance, it will get passed on to our online Grocery Gateway site, to our sale application, to POS and the cashiers.”
This ability to make a change once and then have that automatically update multiple systems is invaluable from a “data integrity” point of view, says Charleson.
He, along with others involved in the rollout emphasize the relatively short time frame in which Longo’s was able to deploy BizTalk Server 2006 and get into production with its new IT infrastructure.
The speed of the rollout was one of the most noteworthy aspects of the entire project, according to Zico Sarmento, a solutions architect at Whitecap Canada Inc. in Toronto, the systems integrator that assisted with the deployment.
Sarmento said all development and testing was all done on the beta version of BizTalk 2006. “Once the RTM (release-to-manufacturing) came out, we downloaded it, installed it, deployed our solution to the production servers – and were running a day after that.”
Industry insiders say a key value proposition of middleware tools – such as BizTalk Server 2006 – is that they help streamline and simplify data exchange between many applications.
They also help developers address the “problem of spaghetti code,” according to Chris Brakel, product manager e-business at Microsoft Canada.
Brakel says the pre-BizTalk environment at Longo’s illustrates how spaghetti code can be a drain on any corporate IT department’s time and resources. “It can cause IT shops to spend a huge chunk of their time trying to maintain disparate systems and keep them stable.”
He says by serving as the hub through which disparate apps and systems can talk to one another, BizTalk is the antidote to this common problem.
The Longo’s story, said Brakel, typifies the experience of many Canadian organizations that seek to create a services oriented architecture based on Web services and middleware connectors.
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