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MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Walking down the aisles of the warehouse of grocery chain Longo’s, everything from salt and catfood to orange juice and soup is, ultimately, taken care of by a hub at the middle of the company’s IT strategy — Microsoft’s BizTalk Server 2006.
Its implementation has led to a 30 per cent decrease in system integration time, executives said Thursday. It is paving the way for a more efficient and accurate supply chain, an enhanced online offering, and business activity monitoring that will support the chain’s newly expanding group of stores and give them a much-needed edge in an evermore crowded grocery market, they said.
Back in 2006, Longo’s was in dire need of a technology upgrade. “We wanted to develop something simple, stable, and scaleable,” said John Charleson, director of information technology and supply chain management for Longo’s. “So we wanted to move to SOA to support our (Salt Lake City-based Tomax’s Retail.net) ERP system.”
Labouring with a team of four developers, Charleson found that his group spent 40 per cent of their time trying to get their disparate systems to talk to each other. The goal was to be able to pass information on a real-time basis from one application to another. “That way, if you make a change in one ERP system, it gets passed down to all the other systems. From a data integrity position, it gives the right information at each level,” Charleson said.
Longo’s already had a significant investment in Microsoft technologies (both in terms of software and IT department expertise), so they turned to BizTalk Server 2006. They got in on the beta testing six months out so that they could get a quick start once the product was released. Since the server software would sit at the centre of a complex web of nine separate programs that contained about 75 different interfaces, Longo’s called in North York, Ont.-based Whitecap, a software design and consultancy firm.
Together, they crafted the many interfaces during the beta period, so that when the product became available, they were able to go live the next day, according to Zico Sarmento, who started out in the Longo team, and now works for Whitecap as a solutions architect/business project manager.
This process was helped along by the program’s many adaptors. Said Chris Brakel, Microsoft Canada’s eBusiness product manager: “BizTalk has adaptors right out of the box, so you’re not worried about what will talk to each other.” The system currently contains about 30 adaptors, but, said Brakel, new releases every two years will keep the ranks fresh and any gaps would most likely be filled by an ISV.
The system has now been running smoothly for a year, passing information between applications seamlessly. An example would be store sales data. The front-end transaction would be fed into the ERP system in real time, said Charleson. “And then we can see what we’re doing at store level,” said Charleson. Real time action also comes in handy with the warehouse management system (WMS), too. When the produce comes into the warehouse, it’s entered right away into the WMS, which then sends it through BizTalk, real-time, into the ERP system so that the stores can see what’s in the warehouse right at that moment.
This comes courtesy of XML standards, which translates the different data into workable information for each unique program. “We push them through as standards, so it’ll be agile,” said Sarmento.
Herein lies the benefit of SOA, according to Charleson. He said that adding new applications is a breeze due to the flexibility factor. “It’s much easier to bring in new apps because you don’t have to rewrite the interfaces, just the piece that installs it,” he said.
One might blanch at everything running through a single hub, but Charleson and his team have embraced another hot new bit of IT there, too: virtualization. In case of disaster, Charleson runs everything on a cloned and clustered virtual environment, with a copy of the production box stored away safely. “Because of the volume of transactions, we are getting a second box that is load-balanced,” he said.
Proposed new box and all, Longo’s clearly has been enjoying the benefits of interoperability for over a year now, and is enjoying the time freed to work on other key IT projects. Said Charleson: “For example, we can further integrate (acquired online grocery system) Grocery Gateway into other systems. The Grocery Gateway order goes back to the ERP system through BizTalk and sends the order to the appropriate store and then to you.”
Longd BizTalk’s easing the application’s integration — and freeing up the IT team’s time to work on it — has been one of the major benefits for Longo’s, since, said Charleson, “Everyone’s in grocery now, so it’s key that you help deliver a unique shopping experience and provide new products.”