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The Home Depot's latest project: XML, Web services

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NEW YORK - The Home Depot is set to launch a pilot of its new point-of-sale system, which would replace four sales applications the company maintains in about 1,300 stores.

After searching unsuccessfully for a packaged application with the functionality it needed - and being a build-it-yourself-type of store - The Home Depot built its own using a Java-based architecture from 360Commerce. "A difficult road to choose, believe me," Ray Allen, senior IS manager at The Home Depot, told attendees at last week's National Retail Federation show.

At the core of The Home Depot's development strategy are XML for defining data to be shared between applications and Web services for breaking up monolithic applications into reusable components.

The simplicity and flexibility of XML helps reduce integration costs and development time, even when linking legacy systems, Allen said. "Because the data format is so simple, you can go to a mainframe COBOL application, generate an XML document and ship that out over the wire. And suddenly now you're accessing data that was embedded in an old application for a long period of time."

The Home Depot's existing POS environment is highly customized and tightly coupled with multiple store systems, including tool rental and special orders. It works well, but The Home Depot found it tough to tailor the system to respond to business changes.

Information-sharing requirements are getting more complex and business practices are changing - which requires IT systems to provide better functionality and greater flexibility across different platforms or else risk losing their value, Allen said. Each business change required the development team to alter four POS applications, written in different languages. "The flexibility just wasn't there," he said.

Also driving the need for the new POS system is The Home Depot's desire to synchronize information from different sales channels, including special order, phone and Web systems, and share consistent information with consumers and marketing staff.

"For as long as I've been in this industry we've been talking about eliminating some of the silos - information silos and business functional silos. It's not really happened," Allen said, but "we're at least getting to the point where we're defining business practices that cross those silos."

That's where Web services come in.

With Web services and XML messaging, companies can isolate - and then reuse - software components that handle specific tasks. The new POS system will replace the four existing systems, and its component-based design will take business changes more easily than packaged applications.

The Home Depot's existing POS, tool rental and special order systems don't have common code, but share common functions such as price lookup, tax calculation, tender management and returns authorizations. Allen and his team worked to isolate those tasks in Web services that combine existing application functions and "what we foresaw coming in the future," Allen said.

Each component is designed to be developed, tested and deployed independently of the applications. The Home Depot says it hopes to purchase these kinds of Web services rather than develop each component.

The Home Depot also uses XML to keep its orders and customer information in synch between the Web site, stores and its central customer database. When a Web order is placed, the company uses XML documents and messaging over HTTP to send the order to be processed in a specific store - for accountability purposes and to make sure the Web site wasn't competing with any particular stores, Allen says.

In one instance, The Home Depot didn't want to change the mainframe system it used for creating special orders for window blinds. It was a complicated system that worked well. So The Home Depot kept the order processing tasks on the system and used XML documents to send the completed transaction data to a store for tracking purposes.

"It's fast, it's scalable, it's flexible. And the content of the information can be adjusted as we need to, with very little effort. A lot of our architectures are going in this direction," Allen said.


Contact Senior Writer Ann Bednarz

Other recent articles by Bednarz

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