A2i's xCat pounces on catalogues

Catalogues these days can be broken into three main types

Catalogues these days can be broken into three main types: print, online, and CD-ROM. In many organisations, each type of catalogue may be created and maintained by a different department, with lots of duplicated effort and duplicated data. A2i's xCat 4.0 attempts to consolidate the production of all three types of catalogs and it succeeds admirably.

A2i comes from a background of supporting large industrial catalogs that may have hundreds of thousands of items. The xCat is a high-performance, highly scalable product.

xCat combines several functions, including a front end to a SQL database, a data mining and presentation tool, a table creation and formatting tool, media management and consolidation tools, and a catalog creation tool. It takes data from one or more sources, including SQL databases, documents stored on a server, media files stored on a server, and data presented through Web services or XML. Print, web, and CD-ROM catalogs can be created easily. The data can be sorted by a wide variety of categories to create specialized catalogs. Graphics can be standardised for the type of catalog, and searches can be preconfigured for the end-user.

A few of xCat's tools perform their specialised functions so well that they would be noteworthy as separate products. The data mining tool quickly and easily refines databases with over 500,000 entries, narrowing a very large multivendor product database to allow users to find specific items in less than a second. The table creation and formatting tool is very easy to use. It creates elaborately formatted tables of any sort with a very minor learning curve. Finally, the data import tool allows data from several sources to be imported into a single database, and provides very simple standardisation and mapping of fields to a single set. For example, data from different sources that used "U.S.," "United States," and "USA" could be rendered as a standard "U.S.A." in the consolidated data.

I set up the xCat system in my lab using a couple of large product databases that A2i gave me to pre-populate the catalog. Other than the necessary SQL server installation and initial database configuration, installation is straightforward. In fact, if the product data is not yet in a database, or is in multiple databases, xCat's ability to act as a front end to a SQL database and to consolidate data from multiple sources should allow a very large catalog to be created with minimal database administrator support.

Cataloging refinements

After the system was installed, I followed the steps to create a smaller, specialised catalog from a much larger one. I refined the catalog items from over 489,000 records to about 6,000. I then created formats for print and online catalogs, specified how to create the accompanying graphics, built the query structure for the catalog, and created the two catalogs. The process was simple and straightforward. Almost anyone, from a non-technical designer to an engineer, could use this product.

There is not enough space here to cover all the tools for catalog creation and content management. Highlights include integration with QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign; real-time (and very fast) automatic graphics scaling (high resolution for print, low for Web); easy hierarchical searches that provide drop-down categories so that users are never left with 'not found' results; and sophisticated print production and CD-ROM authoring functions. The content management capabilities have breadth and depth, and are scalable to hundreds of thousands of items. They cover a wide variety of content, including text files, document files (such as Word or PowerPoint), graphics files of nearly any conceivable type, CAD files, and more.

Another interesting aspect of xCat is its structured approach to catalog entries. For instance, physical specifications and dimensions, cost (in various currencies), or a broad taxonomy of product types and sub-types can be created and used to filter data. This approach allows users to find items of a certain size, for example, regardless of how they specify the units: eighth-inch, .125 inch, etc. The built-in measurements and currencies are extensive, and more can be added easily. The taxonomy is easily defined for each catalog or database, and the tool for defining a taxonomy and ensuring standardisation throughout a large database would be another compelling stand-alone product.

The US$50,000 starting price may be prohibitive for some small businesses, but any company that puts out catalogs with more than a few hundred items should investigate xCat. It provides a unique cluster of powerful functionality, including document and image management, database creation, searching and merging, and formatting for print and online. Its high level of usability should provide major cost savings.

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