Farming co-op extends rollout of SOA tool

An under-budget project with larger than expected pay-off is driving adoption

US agricultural company Southern States Cooperative is rolling out a new service-oriented architecture (SOA) tool companywide in an effort to boost the efficiency of developers now using several different technologies.

The decision to roll out Skyway Software’s Visual Workspace tool came after one development team began using it a year ago to build a pricing application that the farming cooperative estimates has since generated US$1.4 million (NZ$1.9 million) in new revenue.

Virginia-based Southern States, which is owned by more than 300,000 farmers and sells farm supplies in 1,200 retail stores in 23 states, plans to roll out the SOA-based tool to most of its nearly 50 developers over the next 12 to 15 months, says Karen Lankford, vice president of information systems.

The cooperative’s software developers now mostly use tools from Oracle, Microsoft and IBM, she says. The company will retain those tools but hopes that most of the developers will eventually standardise on Visual Workspace for developing web services, Lankford says.

The graphical interface and modelling tool in Visual Workspace will let the developers more easily build web services to be used within a company’s SOA, Lankford says.

“[The tool] is more than a point of integration and a place to simply store your objects and reference them,” Lankford adds.

In addition, Visual Workspace will provide Southern States’ developers with a common tool to build and link web services, according to Lankford. The initial application built using Visual Workspace allows product-pricing data stored in multiple systems to be changed easily.

Before the application was built, Southern States retail stores’ price lists — which were stored in Oracle’s OneWorld ERP application, a homegrown point-of-sale application and an online catalogue — couldn’t be updated quickly or easily, Lankford says.

Personnel in the cooperative’s stores had to make changes by hand, she says, which caused data reconciliation headaches and made it difficult to adjust prices to meet changing market conditions.

Southern States had projected that building the application would take nine months and cost US$119,000. But it was built in five and a half months for $76,000 using the Visual Workspace tool, Lankford says. Also, she noted, the cooperative had expected that the new application would generate US$1 million in new revenue annually, US$400,000 less than the current estimate.

Before tapping the tools from Tampa-based Skyway for the initial project, Southern States evaluated SOA tools from Microsoft and IBM. Lankford describes those products, which lacked functions the cooperative needed to speed the development cycle, as mostly “buckets to keep web services in”.

Lankford did acknowledge that Skyway’s ability to reuse code will mark a “dramatic change” for Southern States’ developers, which may make them wary of using it at first.

The company must conduct “a campaign to convince people that this is the direction we are going,” she says.

Jason Bloomberg, a senior analyst at ZapThink in Baltimore, says a model-driven approach like that of the Skyway tool is an essential part of a move to an SOA.

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