Feature

Open Business Exchange finds host

SiteHost provided the solution for e-invoice delivery service Open Business Exchange

  • Business description Open Business Exchange is a business-to-business electronic invoice delivery service
  • Business challenge To implement a robust, reliable and scalable infrastructure, with round-the-clock managed support and security for the site
  • Solution To offer a secure and reliable online service that is compatible with all invoice processing applications and will enable businesses to streamline their accounts
  • Services Fully managed and integrated web hosting solution from SiteHost

If there is one area where the quest for a paperless office has failed, it is in the accounts department of companies across the globe.

In Europe and America companies generate 15 billion paper invoices every year, costing the medium to large corporations  thousands of dollars each month. This needn’t be the case. As with many other business functions, the Internet provides organisations with the opportunity to both streamline the invoicing process and cut their overheads.

Open Business Exchange has launched an electronic invoicing service (OB10OB10) that will do just this for suppliers and buyers, whatever their size or accounting package. The IT infrastructure supporting the online service is crucial to OBE’s success, which is where Computacenter’s integration and implementation expertise came into play. In addition to procuring and advising on the infrastructure, Computacenter also has overall responsibility for the web environment through its comprehensive managed service, SiteHost.

Open Business Exchange (OBE) is the brainchild of four former executives from Visa International. With more than 70 years’ of experience in the finance sector between them, it’s not surprising that they spotted a great Internet business opportunity. 

Chris Lowrie, Operations Director for OBE, explains why they singled out the invoicing process for the web treatment: “The accounts payable function of a business is very expensive due to its labour intensive nature. The manual handling of invoices delivers no added value to a company,  is very time-consuming, repetitive and is error-prone. By making the entire process electronic, we can save companies up to 90% on their invoice processing costs.”

The OB10 service, OB10, went live in August and the first company to sign up is pharmaceutical giant Fisher Scientific. Other major businesses are currently piloting the service.

Electronic invoicing is itself nothing new, as any EDI proponent will tell you, but the web-enabled, automated process offered by OBE has much wider appeal in the business community. As well as creating system integration files, the HTML invoices created by OB10OB10 have also been recognised by customs and excise as legitimate for VAT purposes - the first many-to-many system to achieve this in the UK.

How it works

OB10 is accessed through a standard web browser and invoices can be uploaded and downloaded via the portal by both suppliers and buyers.  By transferring invoices directly to each other via the Internet, companies will cut out various stages of the manual process - printing, postage, data entry and manual checks are all combined into one simple operation.

The invoices are processed by a unique and very complex data translation engine that is compatible with all invoice processing applications, ranging from large ERP platforms such as SAP and PeopleSoft, to mid-range systems such as Sun Accounting, Sage and Pegasus.

Despite a complex back-end, OB10OB10 is very easy for a company to implement, as they just need a web browser and a digital certificate that authenticates the user. Smaller traders that do not operate any standard software package can still use the service by simply typing up their invoices online using an OBE web interface.

All systems go

Development work on OB10OB10 began in earnest in May 2000, when the four founding partners secured the funding they needed to make their dream a reality. A fundamental task was procuring, designing and installing the infrastructure that would support the service.

With the average blue-chip company handling 100,000 invoices a year, OBE needed a very large, reliable datacentre. Hosting the web site with an external specialist proved to be the most cost-effective and efficient way to attain the performance and resilience levels required.

Chris explains: “As a startup, we couldn’t hope to build the kind of datacentre required to support our service. We needed round-the-clock support, disaster recovery options, dedicated Internet connectivity and some heavy-duty IT equipment. By outsourcing the management of our web infrastructure, we can meet all these requirements without incurring massive overheads.”

After analysing the different players in the market, OBE chose Computacenter’s SiteHost service.  As a result Computacenter is now responsible for managing and maintaining OBE’s web infrastructure, which is hosted at a dedicated Internet centre.

“Computacenter offered the best support and help for setting up our infrastructure. The technical team were very knowledgeable and the whole approach was flexible to our needs,” comments Chris.

The SiteHost service includes optimised Internet connectivity, device backup, load balancing and systems monitoring, which ensure OBE’s infrastructure is delivering optimum performance to its customers - night and day.

Sun’s the one

The infrastructure, which is capable of processing and storing many millions of invoices, is based on Sun technology, includinging two E4500 servers, two AA1000 servers, and an E220 server.

The decision to deploy Sun was an easy one, as Chris explains:  “I’ve used Sun equipment for seven years and can’t recall a bad crash. Using Sun servers and the Solaris operating system was an obvious choice for us. Solaris is more evolved than other Unix platforms and it is easy to manage, plus it works very well with an Oracle database, which is what we are using. Sun hardware is also very scalable, robust and easy to integrate with other devices and applications.”
 
Although the hardware decision was clear-cut, OBE needed expert help with the integration and security of the OB10OB10 system, which is where Computacenter’s  extensive infrastructure skills proved invaluable.

“Computacenter showed us the best way to integrate the system and were particularly knowledgeable about implementing security solutions and helped draw up our security policy,” continues Chris.  “We needed to ensure that the data stored on the site was protected from any intrusion attempts and that our customers were confident in the security of  theof the  OB10OB10  proposition.”

Confidence is key

It wasn’t just Computacenter’s knowledge of security solutions that impressed Chris: “Computacenter handled all the installation and set-up and the project management of this process was fantastic. They had the expertise to take their own decisions on implementation and integration, freeing us to do other development work.

“It would take 10 to 15 people to do the work Computacenter does for us  and I’m very confident outsourcing this responsibility to them,” he continues. “The staff are technically competent and very responsive if we have any queries. The team were instrumental in the co-ordination of the project and truly delivered an end-to-end service. I would definitely work with them again.”

This article was part of Computer Weekly's managed services business channel, sponsored by Computacenter


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This was first published in August 2004

 

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