AEC Extranet Reporting System

Extranet Overview

AEC decided to develop and implement an Extranet Reporting System.  AEC already had reporting available on the internal intranet from reports automatically generated and distributed by their Business Objects system.  Tom Wailgum discussed the evolution of the Internet to intranets and to extranets.  Intranets combine the familiar interface of a Web Browser with protected data, secured from the outside world by a firewall.  Mr. Wailgum stated that the extranet “finds itself somewhere in between–there’s still a firewall, but you allow only selected outsiders, such as business partners and customers, inside”, (1998).

Dominic Maher may have said it even better when he wrote “The purpose of an Extranet is to make a company’s network accessible using Web-browsing technology originally developed for the Internet, so that companies can share their information with customers, clients and business partners” (1997).  AEC felt they had the data and reporting infrastructure their clients needed.  AEC realized that they could make this information available to their clients through use of an extranet.

Client-Server Implementation

AEC knew they needed to implement a system for reporting based on the client-server model using a browser based interface.  The reports had to use the power of AEC’s systems and not require their clients to download software.  AEC also wanted to take advantage of one of the most ubiquitous software programs, the spreadsheet.  Ultimately, AEC could serve up data to clients, but they still would want to sort, sift and present the information in their own special ways.  By making the data available to a spreadsheet, AEC could provide the data the clients needed, deliver it with minimal technology requirements by the client and allow full flexibility with the easy use of spreadsheets.

In some ways it may seem quite extraordinary that AEC would look to utilize a spreadsheet as an ultimate receptor of reports.  Spreadsheets have been around for decades and rarely hit the front page of the computer journals.  It seems that everything must be XML, but that was one of the problems AEC found in delivering data in a normal channel.  AEC did not want to just create data that could be loaded into a database.  AEC was attempting to put business information in the hands of the decision makers in internet based entertainment retailing.  XML data feeds did not reach these people.

Larry Freed is a Vice-President of Divisional Practices for Compuware Corp.  Mr. Freed worked many years establishing standards in Electronic Data Interchange at the American National Standards Institute.  Mr. Freed, in a report for ENT News, noted “Although a standard like XML is critical for effective computer-to-computer transactions, the path to seamless communications still has some potholes” (2000).  There is still a lot of negotiating on the “standards” to get the end result.

With EDI, whether it is ANSI x.12 or XML, companies must still agree on the transmission details.  What are the data elements?  Are they numeric or text?  How should they be ordered?  Unfortunately, companies usually have a very difficult time agreeing on standards.  Mr. Freed noted “I worked with automakers for several years on the X.12 standard. While we got real close to agreeing on standardized forms for data interchange, invariably, there was always something a bit different” (2000).  By utilizing spreadsheets, AEC hoped to avoid the issues of mapping out data and instead just deliver results.

AEC was also not attempting to put together a full, detailed exchange of data.  Traditional EDI is used to acknowledge orders, transmit advanced shipping notifications and invoices.  The system AEC was looking to create was a tool to help managers run their on-line stores, not validate invoices.

Leveraging the AEC Data Warehouse

AEC has long prided itself on managing information in a business sector that historically has very tight margins.  AEC learned that information and management of information was the key to running a successful business.  Several years ago, AEC made the investment of time and money in building a robust Data Warehouse.

Bill Inmon has been recognized as the “Father of Data Warehousing” by the author Michael Reed in his introduction to the Data Warehouses.  Mr. Inmon (as cited in Reed, n.d.) stated “A warehouse is a subject-oriented, integrated, time-variant and non-volatile collection of data in support of management’s decision making process”.  While this may sound quite complex, simply stated a Data Warehouse aggregates data into a format that can be easily used in making managerial decisions.  Data is grouped by logical “subject”, is well integrated together, shows proper dating and is stable.

AEC did research on the various Business Intelligence systems available in the marketplace.  AEC decided to utilize an Oracle database with Business Intelligence software from Business Objects.  When the project was completed and historical data was loaded, the Consumer Direct Fulfillment (CDF) team was able to easily watch various trends related to on-line music and movie purchases.  The CDF team could see data related to how early new release products were pre-ordered to help in purchasing, where consumers were located to optimizing shipping, order size to determine what automation would best suit the operations and a variety of other elements.

Business Objects worked well in creating an internal Business Intelligence system for AEC.  Business Objects had the ability to create routine reports with data and graphical elements, depending on the need of the managers.  Reports could run daily, for noting sales trends, or hourly, for monitoring the operational progress of orders.  Managers could use this information to see what products were running in short supply, whether to shift the workforce to handle a crunch in processing or understand the fluctuations in gross margin for various clients.

A key element of the Business Objects software was the automation and the ability to generate reports into an html format.  Managers did not need to run reports that took time on their systems.  Instead, the CDF team worked with the Data Warehouse team to create routine reports that were deposited onto the AEC network at routine times.  AEC then created a series of simplistic menus, all with basic html, to view the reports.  They even had graphical elements of the reports added to certain menus for virtually subliminal understanding by management.

Managers had the ability to pull up a report for review in micro-seconds, as the arduous computing required for creating of the reports had been done hours earlier.  Without the specific intent or even realizing there was a specific term, AEC created their own intranet which helped manage their business.  They created a way for managers to get information at a moments notice, based on the analysis of types of information managers need.

The CDF team often found they were utilizing the reports to provide information to clients.  The retailers that AEC serviced needed to understand demographics and buying patterns of their specific consumers.  They also needed information on daily sales and tools for sending communications to their consumers or for reporting to their management.

The CDF team, almost because it was so rapid in responding to requests, was becoming the de-facto Information Services department for their clients when it came to information needs.  Unfortunately, the requests were taking a lot of time, as AEC had to segregate the information for the retailers and deliver it, often on a routine basis and always in a hurry.  After all, the information that was so valuable to AEC was really just as valuable to their retail partners.  AEC had to find a way to leverage their existing Data Warehouse with all of the great information into a tool where clients could obtain their information autonomously.

AEC as Application Service Provider:

AEC was ready to embark on a new level of service to their clients, a level of service that bordered on them becoming an Application Service Provider.  Examining the definition of an ASP, as described by “How Stuff Works” (n.d.), AEC meets the four criteria.

  • “The ASP owns and operates a software application.”  This would be true as AEC would own all of the software for building, creating and delivering reports.
  • “The ASP owns, operates and maintains the servers that run the application. The ASP also employs the people needed to maintain the application.”  This would also be true.  AEC would run the reports off its existing infrastructure or expand on the existing systems.
  • “The ASP makes the application available to customers everywhere via the Internet, either in a browser or through some sort of “thin client.”.  This is true as well as the design is for a browser or spreadsheet for delivery.
  • “The ASP bills for the application either on a per-use basis or on a monthly/annual fee basis. In many cases, however, the ASP can provide the service for free or will even pay the customer.”  This passes the test for AEC, too, with AEC using the “free” version.

AEC would utilize a reporting tool as a strategic advantage against its competition.  Once a client began using this system, it would be very difficult for the decision makers to switch companies.  It also had the benefit of encouraging clients to use AEC for 100 percent of the music and movie business.  Reports would be incomplete if some product came from AEC and some came from alternate suppliers.

AEC needed to consciously understand what they were embarking upon.  They needed to understand the demands on servers, data pipelines and their reporting system if this project was to be implemented.  They had to understand that whatever they developed must be clearly documented, be easy to use and function when clients wanted to use the applications.  A few reports were not just going to be e-mailed.  Instead, they would be supporting an Extranet Business Intelligence Reporting System (eBIRS).

AEC also had a key concern of security.  Many of their retail partners were competitors or even rivals of each other.  Best Buy was a fierce competitor with Circuit City, just two of AEC’s many clients.  AEC had to carefully protect the data of its various partners.  It in no way could allow retailers to view the sales or pricing information of another retailer.

WebIntelligence:

AEC needed to do some research and determine what their best solution was.  They had a great amount of internal talent for developing Web based applications.  AEC also had talent in creating an intranet based Business Intelligence system.  AEC prided itself on designing and developing solutions using their own people with basic tools.  Should this be another in-house project?

AEC realized that while there was extensive talent for developing applications, this was probably a time they should look for an outside tool.  They needed an application that could easily create an extranet version of reports they were using to satisfy their clients on a daily basis.  The reports also needed to be fast and well organized, as they were with the Business Object reports.  AEC required that the reports utilize the existing data from the internal Data Warehouse, as it would be too expensive to deploy and maintain new data sources for this project.

Fortunately for AEC, the answer was readily available.  AEC had built a high level of expertise in the development of reports for their intranet.  Now, the product AEC had used was available in a version specifically designed for extranet reporting systems.  AEC could utilize the data, reports and talent built upon the Business Objects system with their new product WebIntelligence.

WebIntelligence is a very powerful tool for creating reports that can be run using the client / server philosophy.  Users work with a browser to start a report and answer prompts built in by the designers.  The tool creates reports that are functional and graphical, which helps in rapid understanding for decision makers.  An example of reports can be seen in figure 2, as posted by Business Objects.

Richard Goldman, Direct of Data Warehousing at Alliance Entertainment Corporation (personal communication, December 4, 2003) noted that WebIntelligence allowed AEC “to capitalize on the extensive infrastructure created for AEC’s internal reporting needs and leverage that for the new retailer reporting system”.  This was a key concept for AEC as they had made a considerable investment in the existing Business Objects application and manpower learning the systems and creating reports.

Mr. Goldman went on to say “we really liked the Business Objects tool for creating a Business Intelligence system.  The WebIntelligence application was easy to use, created great looking graphs and allowed our retail partners to load the reports into spreadsheets.”  There was a genuine sense of satisfaction in the use of the product.  AEC was able to create the reports and integrate them into their existing Internet support site in a matter of weeks, something that could not have been accomplished had they been starting from scratch (see figure 3).

Webintelligence provided the mechanism for segregating data so various partners would not see each other’s information.  Colin Robbins, product strategist at Nexor, as quoted by Informantics (n.d.), pointed out that “Operating systems provide only a minimal level of security and usually leave responsibility for the relevant security to the application or network.”  Fortunately for AEC, WebIntelligence was built with extranet security as a core requirement.  Business Objects, as found on their corporate Web site, stated that WebIntelligence “provides multiple security options including extranet-centric multiple firewall support.”

Implementation:

AEC decided to roll out a small number of reports for users, instead of determining every possible scenario.  This allowed the retailer partners to learn what AEC was preparing and have some input into the process.  This approach let AEC deploy the system very rapidly and with a minimum expense.  If the clients were unwilling or unable to use the system, AEC would have a minimal loss.

AEC started by creating reports that were requested on a routine basis by their clients.  The reports were for daily sales summaries, top selling products, geographic ordering patterns and similar types of reports.  Soon this expanded to creating reports designed for downloading into spreadsheets to be utilized in other areas.  For example a consumer demographic report was used so clients would have lists for creating e-mail or snail mail marketing campaigns.

The response actually surprised AEC’s Consumer Direct Fulfillment and Data Warehouse teams.  They initially looked at the system as a way of saving operational support effort and as a way to keep clients happy.  The response from the retail clients was extremely positive.  Not only were the clients getting the reports they needed, AEC found they wanted more.  One of the few negatives in the project was that AEC now needed to field new requests and of course work to satisfy the requests quickly.

The Extranet Business Intelligence Reporting System was successful in many ways.  The account managers did indeed save time in generating reports, which allowed each representative to manage more clients successfully.  AEC’s retailer clients utilized the system to help manage their site and WebIntelligence kept data properly secure.

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