Web services: Facing both ways

House of Fraser has developed not one web service but two at disparate ends of its business. In both cases, cost was an important...

House of Fraser has developed not one web service but two at disparate ends of its business. In both cases, cost was an important factor. Jane Dudman reports.

House of Fraser is using web services to help it handle data more efficiently in two areas of its business: one at the front end, providing a loyalty scheme for customers; and the other at the heart of its supplier chain. One project is based on Java, the other on .net.

In May 2003, the department store chain, which has 47 shops, launched its Recognition customer loyalty scheme. This relies heavily on customer information held in an Oracle datawarehouse that has been in place for many years. Every transaction is stored in the datawarehouse, which is the basis for calculating loyalty points for customers.

Keeping this database up to date is vital for the smooth running of the customer loyalty scheme. House of Fraser uses a third-party call centre for handling customer enquiries. Although it wanted to ensure the database was fully updated both for internal use and for use by the call centre staff, the retailer felt strongly that it wanted to keep control of its customer information. This was one of the major drivers for using web services in this area of its business.

"We wanted one single set of data and a way for the call centre supplier to come in, read and update our data in a controlled way," says Andrew Bond, development services manager at House of Fraser.

The call centre supplier has its own software, so it was important that the system should be integrated into the call centre's existing systems. "We needed to provide an application program interface into our customer relationship management database and since they use Microsoft and we use Oracle, web services was the obvious answer," says Bond.

One of the attractions of web services is that they can be wrapped around existing processes. This has considerable benefits, according to Andy Cleverly, director of technology marketing at Oracle. "We recognise that our customers have a key strategic investment in their existing development and deployment environment," he says.

"House of Fraser is the classic example of that. The loyalty card system is on an Oracle datawarehouse and it has very Oracle-oriented people. They have those skills and business processes already written. In a sense, it is not about web services per se; from an application development viewpoint, web services are just a different transport mechanism."

New developments usually cost money. However, House of Fraser saved by not re-training its IT staff in new skills and, more importantly, the new loyalty scheme was built on the existing Oracle database.

To do this, the retailer's IT team defined a set of web services based on existing procedures in the database, such as creating a new customer account. Using the JDeveloper tool, the development team generated the web services description language from the existing code base of PL/SSQL procedures. They were able to re-use existing code by wrapping the procedures in web services interfaces generated by JDeveloper. Bond says this is a relatively simple process.

The new system has provided House of Fraser with big benefits, he says, the main one being smooth integration and updating of all customer data.

Another is being able to re-use processes. "We have taken those store procedures as web services and used some of them in building a new customer ordering system," he says. "This calls exactly the same web services to get the customer details, so we have got that for free."

At the other end of its business, House of Fraser has been collaborating electronically with its suppliers for a long time, using electronic data interchange. The software underpinning this approach was costly and time-consuming to manage. Adding new suppliers to the system could take several days.

Here, too, the retailer has opted for web services as part of the move to become more efficient. By implementing a new B2B system, House of Fraser aims to handle all its ordering electronically; to share strategic data, such as sales information, with its suppliers; and to enable smaller suppliers to use the online system, by removing the charges involved in EDI.

The platform is based on Microsoft Biztalk Server, supplied by integrator Solidsoft, with software from B2B supplier Covast. It uses web services to update data across the enterprise in real time. The aim is to deploy a single, fully-integrated system that will reduce maintenance costs and provide a single location to view electronic documents being exchanged with suppliers. The IT team is using Microsoft's .net framework to develop the system and provide a flexible, object-oriented development model.

Initially, the system will support the existing 300 suppliers communicating with House of Fraser online, but this will be expanded so eventually the system will handle up to 1,300 different suppliers. Having used Microsoft for desktop and point-of-sale systems, the retailer feels Microsoft servers have advanced in terms of scalability and performance.

Implementing two types of web services development in different parts of the business has been no more challenging than running any two separate projects, says Bond. But the real impact of web services has been the ability for the retailer to move forward from its former approach to development. "We have a strong IT strategy, based on making our back-end systems fairly homogenous," he says. "We have always implemented standards where possible. But going forward, we find we don't have to take exactly the same approach.
"Web services allow us to have a slightly more heterogeneous environment. It means the integration issue is not so important and it gives me more options to play with, enabling us to take more best-of-breed systems than would otherwise be possible," he says.

Bond sees web services as increasingly strategic to House of Fraser. "They are one of those technologies that can solve real business problems," he says.

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