A guiding hand

Sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t good. That’s what a Montreal-based electronic parts company found after suppliers insisted its popular online catalogue carry more listings than its system could handle.But locked into proprietary software its IT staff couldn’t change, the company had a problem.
The answer wasn’t unique – a solution provider was hired to guide the customer in swapping the catalogue’s engine for one with more capacity. But the story is a lesson to VARs on how to let a client do most of the work, as well as to be prepared to compete with a major software vendor.

Initial goal limited
Future Electronics sells thousands of semiconductors and interconnects from dozens of manufacturers for builders of electronics around the world.
It only stocks about 120,000 parts at a time, although its suppliers offered millions more. But the company only wanted to list its inventory, so it chose a Unix-based catalogue solution which it thought was enough for that job.
According to Robert Lapointe, Future’s vice-president of information technology, it does about $660 million worth of business online, but that’s only a small part of the company’s sales. Still, many buyers use the site to look up and compare parts before ordering offline, so its suppliers wanted all of their parts listed on Future’s site.
When the database hit 500,000 parts last year the response of the system was so slow it had to be changed.
“Our choice was to pay the original (software) supplier (which he wouldn’t name) to do some major re-work, or lift the engine and replace it,” said Lapointe.
Replacement carried an incentive: If it could be done before Dec. 31, 2004, Future would get a refund on the pre-paid maintenance fees that had gone to the original software maker.
After investigating, he chose Microsoft’s Commerce Server 2002 for the new engine, in part because his staff can modify the software, and in part because of price.
However, he wanted assurances Commerce Server could do the job. He also wanted his staff to do the implementation, but it didn’t have much experience with the software.
So Microsoft agreed to do a proof-of-concept, with Avanade Canada supervising the implementation. Avanade is a partnership between Microsoft and international consulting firm Accenture, specializing in work on Microsoft software.

Finding proof
The proof-of-concept showed Commerce Server could handle up to one million parts.
To be sure, Louis Fournier, an Avanade project manager assigned to oversee the work, took the test up to five million.
Fournier’s job was to lead the five-member Future IT team, designing the solution around the company’s business rules, helping them set up and configure the system and link it to Future’s back-end systems, and teaching its staff how to work in Microsoft’s .Net environment. They had four months.
Among the goals was to keep the existing online interface and the existing buyers’ profiles and passwords.
And if things went well, Future asked, could Fournier add the ability to do full text search? He did.
“I was able to leverage their knowledge, and by bringing in my technical skills, pushed that further,” said Fournier.
Future is pleased with his work. Lapointe said Avanade “was quite instrumental in the success of this project.”
It cost $300,000, but Future got that back in the maintenance rebate.
“In effect,” said Lapointe, “this project cost nothing.”

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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