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Not all projects go according to plan and, with the best will in the world, the wheels can come off even those that have been well thought-out. Deadlines are missed, costs spiral and what had looked good on paper turns into a major headache. The business has to decide whether to scrap the project and start again or soldier on.
Alan Herbage, group IT director of global car rental broker Holiday Autos, knows this scenario well. Earlier this year Herbage was forced to pull the plug on an over-running project to develop a centralised car rental reservation system, based on Oracle Voyager, and switch to a browser-based option.
The Oracle project was being carried out by a German software house that Holiday Autos had worked with before. "It knew our business, it knew the industry and had developed software for us," says Herbage.
But although the project started reasonably well it was soon missing deadlines. The Voyager system should have gone live in September 2000 but by December it was "nowhere near completion".
Herbage says the German firm ran into problems with the system's architecture. "We were getting to the point where it was six months late and the board were worrying," he says. Then in June the software house wrote to tell Holiday Autos it had filed for bankruptcy.
If the car rental company had been told earlier it could have done something about it, says Herbage, but "the supplier had left it right to the last moment".
Understandably, the software house's subsequent requests for money to keep it afloat so it could continue with the project were poorly received.
"What it was asking for seemed exorbitant and we still had no guarantee that we would have a viable product at the end," says Herbage. So the company started looking round for an alternative.
It began by looking at the work that Progress Software had done on Holiday Autos' e-commerce Web site. In late 1999, Progress had set up an online customer bookings system based on a relational database in just nine weeks. The service was then extended to enable travel agents and intermediaries to access the Holiday Autos online booking system via Web sites that had dual branding.
The third phase, introduced in March, gave travel agents direct access to the Holiday Autos online booking system. XML was used to enable partners, such as the airline Go, to embed the Holiday Autos site in their own Web sites. The company also uses an XML e-messaging product from Progress to communicate with external suppliers.
"It was a starting point," says Herbage. "What we saw was a fairly good fit."
A study showed there was a 60% match between the two developments. The browser-based system could also be extended to include the extra back-office functionality and links to suppliers that had been planned for Voyager. "It wasn't as simple as we thought it would be," says Herbage, "but in the end we were fairly confident we could come up with something."
The decision to go with Progress was taken in July. Herbage recommended the Progress product because it was a global enterprise product. Its offering was also more scalable, offered good security and it was multi-platform, he says.
Centralisation was a key goal in the project. Holiday Autos has a global reach and offers car rental from 4,000 locations in more than 60 countries, selling through sales offices in 40 source markets. The company wanted to consolidate its scattered telesales reservations systems to engineer cost savings and improve efficiency. It also planned to provide online access to reservation information, centralised accounting and management information.
"The whole strategy is to centralise the reservation system using one Web site based in the UK," says Herbage. To support this the company has built a single corporate back-office system in the UK.
This time the company was keen to avoid what Herbage calls "scope creep". "We tried to look at a timeline," he says. "The aim was to get software available in six months." But the company wanted something quicker, so it started on a trimmed-down version.
This system has less functionality but the company established it could have it up and running within 12 weeks and plans implement it in the company's France and Benelux offices by mid-November.
For the UK, which provides about half of its business, Holiday Autos will add more functionality, although it will use the same underlying architecture. The company intends to have the UK system ready by mid-December. "It's not an ideal way to do this but this is what we can do in this period of time," he says.
Herbage says that, for the total cost the doomed Voyager Oracle project, "You're probably looking at close to £1m."
The contract with the German software house was worth £500,000 although Holiday Autos didn't pay it all. The development costs were about £350,000 and £230,000 was spent on Oracle. But that money was not entirely wasted.
Herbage says the car rental company was able to move a lot of the knowledge, design and functionality into the Web-based architecture.