Legacy systems pose challenge for e-tailers

Chief technology officers agreed that legacy systems pose a special challenge to retail and financial companies offering services...

Chief technology officers agreed that legacy systems pose a special challenge to retail and financial companies offering services online, during a panel discussion at the eTail2003 conference in Boston yesterday.

When one attendee asked panelists for "tips, tricks or magic" for integrating old systems with newer e-commerce front ends, Gap's Cornell Williams responded, "Get rid of them. That's the trick," touching off peals of laughter from the audience and at least one shout of "Amen!" 

Williams added that Gap's long-term plans include replacing systems that were never built for the company's business demands today. 

"At some point, you have to say, 'I give up! I yield!'" said Bob Bell, chief technology officer at New York-based Alloy. In the meantime, teen site Alloy.com is turning to data marts as an intermediary between legacy systems and the requirements of a modern e-business. 

Paul Leroux, chief technology officer at financial services consultancy Gomez, said his customers could not jettison their legacy systems. Instead, they too are turning to data marts, as well as XML, as a way to live with old systems never designed to handle the demands of modern e-commerce. He called XML the "solid idea" behind much of the buzz around web services. 

Both Gap and Alloy are also implementing open-source software as they seek to move to more open, scalable architectures, cut the cost of ownership and shorten development time. "The whole nature of our back end has shifted radically," Bell said. 

Additional advice from the panelists included: 

Use available corporate resources to get return on investment metrics. At Gap, financial executives sign off on major technology return on investment estimates, and their compensation is tied to meeting those project goals. 

Be aware of overall internet issues. For example, even if a retailer was unaffected by this week's Blaster worm, many of its customers may have been hit or suffered degraded services. "You may not have wanted to launch a campaign yesterday," Leroux said. 

Bring business "owners" into the process early. This ensures that technology will meet real business needs, Williams advised. And giving non-IT colleagues information about effort and costs involved with various technology options helps them make better decisions about what they ask for, Leroux said. 

Be realistic. One distribution centre under an aggressive timetable meant its IT department was literally still writing code as the move was under way to keep track of inventory in dozens of trucks. The problem wastrying to meet business requests "without raising enough red flags".

Sharon Machlis writes for Computerworld

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