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Inchcape is using the Web services technology to manage the lifecycle of its 400,000-vehicle UK car fleet by linking its systems with business partners including car manufacturers, car rental companies, company car fleet operators, motor dealers and banks.
Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at analyst firm Ovum, said, "This is quite an advanced deployment. Microsoft claims 1,500 Biztalk implementations, but this is probably unique in terms of scale."
Last month, Inchcape's internal IT department took over the system from Edenbrook, the company that built it. Industry watchers and IT directors will now want to see whether the implementation will prove the value of Web services and Microsoft's much-hyped .net technology.
The SQL Server-based infrastructure uses Biztalk and .net Web services tools such as C# to link Inchcape's core fleet management business systems with those of its business partners.
Peter Wilson, Inchcape's IT director, said, "We saw the potential to manage vehicles from the cradle to the grave but needed a sophisticated information management system to achieve this."
Biztalk uses the XML data format to schedule messaging, while C#, Active Server Pages .net and Visual Basic .net have allowed Inchcape to knit together disparate systems including legacy mainframes, IBM AS/400s and Clipper Advantage databases to achieve data transfers in real time, rather than batch processing.
Wilson said he had "some concerns" about implementing the relatively untested technologies from the .net family, but aims to mitigate the risks by building up from the basic technologies.
Structured and planned messaging between partners using Biztalk was rolled out initially. Then, as the infrastructure bedded down, Web services functions were gradually introduced.
"Because this was more bleeding edge than leading edge we were careful to 'de-risk' things by rolling out the tried and tested components such as Biztalk first, then adding the true Web services element," said Wilson.
Ward-Dutton said the software itself is not "flaky" but users must understand where it can be practically introduced, which is difficult for early adopters.
"Microsoft has a massive range of different technologies and users must engage with a systems integrator which understands what [Microsoft] has and can come up with a comprehensive proof-of-concept design to knit it together," he said..
The project required considerable strengthening of Inchcape's IT and network infrastructures. To achieve secure links, seven virtual private networks were set up between the business partners involved and 13 new servers are being managed and hosted by Intel to provide Biztalk, database and firewall functions.