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In many cases, the end of the year gives you time to step back and take stock of the last 12 months. This is when many of us take a hard look at what worked and what did not, complete performance reviews, and formulate plans for the coming year. For me, it is all of those things plus a time when I u...
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British American Tobacco - In the driver's seat with Web services-based dashboards
British American Tobacco - In the driver's seat with Web services-based dashboards

With brands sold in 180 markets around the world, British American Tobacco, the world's most international tobacco company, was looking for a way to access and analyze data to improve supply-chain performance. The IT department was charged with finding a new approach that would provide significant improvements over the traditional approach of gathering and storing data, transforming it into information, and generating reports. The complexity of report generation, married with the inability to easily connect disparate information sources, makes this a costly information technology problem.

Critical supply-chain information at British American Tobacco is stored in applications from SAP and i2 Technologies. The problem that the company faced was that the data and information contained in the enterprise was difficult to get at, couldn't be easily created or administered, and was not updated in a timely fashion. Conventional wisdom suggested traditional business intelligence tools on top of a standard data warehouse were the only option to effectively access the data and run complex, technically administered reports. However, building a data warehouse would take months, and British American Tobacco wanted to demonstrate business results in a much shorter timescale.

With the dawn of Web services, there had to be an innovative new technology concern that was applying the principles of "distribution" to that of intelligence or data for large global corporations. British American Tobacco identified CXO Systems, a two-year-old startup that had applied the same principles of distribution to business intelligence that leading technology companies such as Cisco and Sun had applied to the network and computing before them.

Fueling BAT's Web Services Initiative
The technology standards movement brought on by Web services has enabled organizations to attain new levels of business visibility that will allow companies to more nimbly react to market and business changes, and more profitably serve their employees, customers, and shareholders.

Having recently embarked on a Web services initiative, which included Librados Enterprise Integration Component Server and Infravio's Web service management tool, IT managers at British American Tobacco were compelled by the idea of implementing a Web services-based dashboard that would extract and integrate information from operational and analytical systems, providing executives with direct access to the information they need to make important business decisions without new investments in data warehousing, business intelligence, or EAI tools.

Working with executive dashboard specialists CXO Systems as its partner in executing the next step in the company's Web services strategy, the company created a pilot dashboard for a major part of British American Tobacco's European business that extracts information from legacy SAP systems and i2 supply planning applications to create interactive reports that show metrics on average lead time for product delivery, forecasting metrics, and other manufacturing capabilities that help to ensure demand can be met. The product, CXO System, consumes Web services and processes the data, which is displayed as a dashboard interface. Now the supply-chain team within that part of the business can view one portal screen with a series of tabs, each showing metrics for different groups.

Dashboards: Outside Looking In
The concept of dashboards is simple - they provide a straightforward, consistent way for decision makers to view up-to-date data from every enterprise system. Dashboards allow companies to view and monitor business processes in real time. Applied to the supply chain, dashboards allow workers to make critical business decisions based on forecasted market demand, product inventory, and the varying lead times within different global markets.

Web services are a natural solution for dashboards. They allow British American Tobacco to integrate the information from multiple sources, providing the company with a seamless view of supply and demand factors for a fraction of the cost of creating a data warehouse. Not only was creating a Web services-based dashboard less expensive than creating a data warehouse, but it took only eight weeks. And while most large enterprises have point solutions for each piece of production information (logistics, delivery, etc.) and a degree of integration across some applications, most enterprises still cannot look at supply and demand in real time, in one place, at one time, the way that parts of British American Tobacco now can.

Now it is possible to monitor the performance of the supply and demand chain from one place without relying on alerts from multiple systems or phone calls from the field. Additionally, each local portion of the supply chain can be given a customized view into the chain, showing exactly the information they need to manage their operation.

.NET and Java: Fork in the Road?
While the great debate about the supremacy of .NET and Java continues, the British American Tobacco implementation is further proof that the two technologies can coexist. CXO is a .NET-based application, but products based on J2EE were used in the project to enable integration with back-end business systems.

The Road Ahead
British American Tobacco plans to spread the dashboard concept across its business, not just in the supply chain arena but into other areas of the business too. With the core foundation for distributed intelligence in place, the company can now activate dashboards within weeks in any business segment for a fraction of the price and time of the traditional data warehouse-based method. Additionally, due to Web services, once the dashboards are active they can stream data in "right time," based on the users' needs.

Together, British American Tobacco and CXO Systems think they have found the "holy grail" of Web services - the ability to solve the age-old data problem in a seamless and cost-effective manner, by treating the enterprise and all the data stored in any application or file as the data warehouse.

About Kevin Poulter
Kevin Poulter is the application technology manager at British American Tobacco and is charged with defining global strategy for application infrastructure.

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