Corporate Express goes direct

When you have consolidated computer systems from 500 corporate acquisitions, you get pretty good at IT integration.

Indeed, nothing so distinguishes IT at Corporate Express as the degree to which it seamlessly links major supply systems -- its own and those of customers and suppliers. The US$5.5 billion vendor of office supplies for the business market has, in essence, become an extension of the procurement systems of its largest customers.

"Integration is one of our core competencies," says CIO Lisa Peters, who has seen her IT shop grow from 12 people to more than 300 in the past nine years.

Corporate Express has for years taken orders for furniture, paper, computer supplies and other office products by telephone, fax and electronic data interchange. In 1997, it began offering customers Internet-based procurement via a simple CD-ROM catalog. Now, more than half of its 75,000 daily orders arrive electronically, most as XML transactions through a richly featured Web portal called E-Way.

The smallest of Corporate Express' 30,000 customers, which typically lack their own automated procurement systems, log onto E-Way and conduct purchasing transactions much as a consumer might at Amazon.com. These buyers have also placed many of their unique procurement rules into E-Way, so that, for example, E-Way checks budgets, buyer authorizations and other controls for customers.

But 750 of the company's largest customers -- which account for some 80 percent of its sales volume -- have a more direct connection to E-Way. Corporate Express has integrated E-Way into the processing fabric of their internal procurement systems. That involved integrating with some 40 different commercial packages from companies ranging from Ariba to Commerce One Operations and eScout. These customers start to build orders locally, but then bridge to E-Way by leveraging the integration features offered by each vendor's product. For example, Corporate Express uses PunchOut for integration with Ariba, RoundTrip for Commerce One, ConnectScout for eScout and so on.

Although customers can maintain their own versions of the Corporate Express catalog, more often the catalogs are maintained by and at Corporate Express. Every catalog is tailored to its user's format, terminology and buying practices.

"E-Way knows all the customer rules -- for example, that they don't buy desks from us, so desks will be blocked out," says Wayne Aiello, vice president of e-business services. "E-Way actually becomes the customer's system, so every customer has to be examined and treated differently."

Corporate Express is doing about 10 new customer integrations per month. They take 10 to 20 days -- with requirements definition, coding and testing taking equal amounts of time -- but the first few projects took 10 times that long.

"The hardest thing three to four years ago was that nobody in the industry had done it," Aiello says. "XML was the buzzword, but it was really new. Platforms like Ariba and Commerce One were beginning to get a lot of hype, but there weren't people who had actually implemented them."

The company buys off-the-shelf software when it can, but much of E-Way and its other supply systems were developed in-house. Commercial packages often aren't scalable or flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of customers, the company says. For example, Corporate Express developed its own search engine tailored to the characteristics of an office supply catalog.

Unocal, used to buy from Corporate Express by telephone and fax, but has now integrated its Oracle procurement system with E-Way. Michael Comeau, e-procurement tools manager at Unocal, says he likes E-Way's ability to send all invoices to a central point for payment, its buying controls and its order-tracking ability. "Maverick spending is reduced tremendously," he says.

Meanwhile, Trisha Smallwood, manager of mail center operations at The Kroger in Cincinnati, says she likes E-Way because it saves her five minutes on every order. No more filling out an order form, faxing it and waiting for confirmation. The process is made even simpler, she says, by E-Way's ability to maintain a list of items that Kroger orders frequently as well as the special prices and terms that the grocery chain has negotiated.

Data, Data, Everywhere

Corporate Express used software from webMethods to integrate its major logistics and financial applications. The webMethods tool provides flexibility in deciding where data and logic are best placed, says Bret McInnis, vice president for e-business technologies at Corporate Express.

For example, warehouse inventory balances change constantly, so E-Way makes a synchronous call through webMethods to Corporate Express' custom-developed InVision ERP system to retrieve balances when they're requested by an online customer. But pricing data is more static, so pricing algorithms and data about customers and products that are in PL/SQL procedures in InVision are replicated to E-Way using SharePlex from Quest Software.

"It basically sniffs the Oracle logs and replicates the data in real time," McInnis says. "We wrap that Oracle code in a JavaBean, so we call the exact same algorithm that InVision calls to get the customer's price."

A performance advantage comes from being able to price an item just when it's needed. Previously, every combination of item price and customer was stored in a table that soon grew to an unwieldy 1 billion rows, he says. Moreover, changes to price, customer and item data can be made in just one place and replicated elsewhere as needed. And use of an integration tool like webMethods effectively allows software to be used in multiple places without rewriting it, McInnis adds.

Optimum placement of data and logic are critical when dealing with a high volume of low-margin transactions, McInnis says. "Performance and scalability are always huge issues for us," he says. "Our average order size is (small), so it takes a lot of transactions for US$5 million a day on our Web site."

While grabbing data using webMethods is "theoretically easy," Aiello says, optimizing performance is not. "At any point, we have thousands of people on the site placing orders. Making something available to 3,000 users simultaneously is a challenge."

The E-Way Architecture

Behind the scenes in the E-Way system, customer orders, acknowledgements, invoices and other transactions flow between customers and E-Way as XML transactions by way of two Internet service providers.

Orders from small and midsize customers that use E-Way as their procurement system go to the E-Way Web server and pass through the webMethods Integration Platform server directly into InVision, Corporate Express' ERP system. Orders from the 750 large customers whose own e-procurement systems have been integrated with E-Way interact with Integration Platform from webMethods.

Integration Platform is the enterprise application integration (EAI) "layer" that ties Corporate Express' e-commerce, ERP, warehouse management and financial systems. After some translating and format standardization, the EAI layer sends the transaction to the InVision ERP system, where it's processed like any other order. InVision sources the order and sends it to its own warehouse or to a wholesaler for pickup and delivery the next day.

E-Way is a three-tier system. At the top sit five Sun Solaris servers running Apache Web server software. Files, such as catalog page images, are stored on a Linux server and then cached on Solaris Web servers using the Open AFS enterprise file system. The second tier, a JBoss application server, is a combination of JavaBeans and servlets. It shares a big Sun Fire 15K server with the third tier, the Oracle database server running PL/SQL procedures.

Corporate Express is migrating the E-Way application code from Oracle PL/SQL to Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). That will allow separation of presentation functions from business logic in JavaServer Pages, making code more modular and hence easier to maintain, says Bret McInnis, vice president for e-business technologies. It will also make code more scalable and efficient, he says. The J2EE architecture will use several open-source software tools, such as Struts, Tiles and Velocity -- frameworks for developing Java applications that facilitate breaking applications into their functional parts.

Finally, Trigo Technologies' Product Center software maintains product catalog information and publishes it to E-Way and other systems. The 4i eContent Server from Documentum maintains an archive of Web site content, including reports and billing.

Getting to Real Time

E-Way started out with a much simpler objective. "When it started, it was essentially a one-way order system, an online catalog," says Wayne Aiello, vice president of e-business services. "They'd find a product and send an order into InVision," the company's ERP system.

That has changed, however. "It's transforming itself into a two-way interface between us and the customer," he says, "so as we continue to add more transactions, we are bringing more information from our supply chain forward to the customer."

Corporate Express has a number of supply chain and financial systems, plus interfaces with the systems of its suppliers. Any information from those sources is potentially available to present to customers using the webMethods integration tool. Corporate Express already uses that tool to retrieve real-time inventory balances from its InVision system and send them to customers via E-Way. But if an item isn't in stock, it doesn't tell buyers when it might be on the shelves again. Soon E-Way will also retrieve the item's estimated date of receipt based on the supplier's information system.

Corporate Express also plans to push more order-status information to customers, including who signed for a delivery at the customer site. A point-of-delivery device will capture that data and send it via a service of Aether Systems to a warehouse management system, where webMethods can grab it and present it to the E-Way user.

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