Standards Part II: Food-Services Standards
Association of Retail Technology Standards (ARTS)
Custom Versus Standards-Based Application Integration
Summary: Thanks to some forward thinking by early intellectuals, we have reasonably defined standards. This paper discusses the importance and benefits of standards, and some of the exciting work that is being done in the food-services standards area. (5 printed pages)
Have you ever thought what would happen if railway tracks, car tires, and power sockets were all different sizes? It would be a chaotic world, one in which nothing functioned and life came to a standstill. This is where standardization helps. Thanks to some forward thinking by early intellectuals, we have reasonably defined standards. Otherwise, train travelers would have to hop between different train systems to reach their destinations, or we would have to buy an adapter with every appliance.
This paper discusses the importance and benefits of standards, and some of the exciting work that is being done in the food-services standards area.
Like any other segment, retail technology has witnessed tremendous growth, which led to many vendors creating many devices, appliances, and other solutions. This is good for the retail industry, as it benefits from the innovation. However, retailers were the first to try to assemble disparate applications built on disparate technologies, and they realized that it requires huge investments in terms of resources to integrate them. Retailers needed standardization, so that most of the applications could speak the same language and understand each other's messages without requiring a custom interface/adapter. Realizing the critical need for standards, industry experts came together to create a standards body to ensure that vendor-neutral standards are created for the food-services industry.
Standardization of interfaces helps in integrating applications, such as a point-of-service (POS) application exchanging messages with back-office applications; devices (for example, any printer connecting to the POS terminal); and so forth. They do this by defining how to interact with applications and devices and ensuring that the messages between sharing entities are in a predictable format, so that applications developed by different vendors can talk to each other. Standards are beneficial to both application developers and end users of any product or service. From a retailer's standpoint, standards allow the integration and interoperability of devices and applications from different vendors, enabling the creation of more cost-effective, customizable, advanced, and powerful systems. Standards also provide the freedom that retailers are looking for in picking best-of-breed applications that meet their requirements, without the fear of incompatibility between the selected devices or applications. From a developer's viewpoint, standards reduce the cost of systems design and development and allow easier migration and specialization in an application area.
Standards have a critical importance on the future development of our abilities to collaborate and interact outside of boundaries and rules dictated only by single application or suite providers. Standards can create markets and enable competitive advantage by allowing extensibility of application function to accommodate new business requirements. Standards help in standardizing the taxonomy that is used by the industry and also develop a common vocabulary of industry terms.
Standards can provide the following benefits to the retail community:
- Less-expensive solutions: When two applications follow the standards for outputting and consuming messages, the integration becomes easier, which costs the customer less. For example, integration between a store point-of-service (POS) application and enterprise line-of-business (LOB) application will be a non-issue if the POS application sends messages to the LOB application following the industry standard, and the LOB application is built to consume these industry-standard messages.
- Rich user experience: When applications integrate seamlessly, they provide a rich user experience. With a means to extend an application through standards, new functions can be introduced on top of an existing application. This can minimize the disruption and changes that must be absorbed by the user.
- Improved performance: When applications are built to inherently accept messages based on standards, no adapter or accelerator is required to map the message format from one application to another. This eliminates the need for an interpreting piece of middleware and enhances overall performance of the solution.
- Reduced maintenance costs: Custom integration between applications requires constant maintenance to keep up with changes in applications. Messaging and data standards are designed to allow individual pieces of an application to be changed without having to modify the interfaces.
- Best-of-breed applications: A standards framework offers the capability to hook together applications from different sources more easily. Retailers can select applications from two different providers and, perhaps, fill in missing functions themselves, thus providing an optimal combination of functions for their business.
- Vendor-neutral: Standards are based on an open language, such as XML, which is vendor-neutral and can be generated and consumed by any application, irrespective of the platform. Standards define the data to be exchanged; XML provides an open language to carry the data, and open transport methods, such as HTTP, Web services, and so on, allow applications to exchange that data.
To better understand the benefits of standards, let's look at a food-services enterprise retailer. Typically, retail stores have POS terminals for taking orders, and there is a back-office system for the manager to perform the back-office functions, such as labor scheduling, reporting, and so forth. On a nightly basis, or a few times a day, transaction and sales data is batched up and sent to the corporate office, while price updates and promotional information are simultaneously downloaded from the corporate headquarters.
On the corporate side, data from the stores is collected in different formats, based on the applications in the stores. Format of the data that is collected from the stores depends on the POS software provider. Some enterprises ensure that the same vendor supplies all of their POS software, and some enterprises go with a mix of different vendors. So, based on the number of vendors, collected data could be sent through many transformations, so that all corporate systems can use it.
This process of integrating data, messages, and information between different applications takes custom work, as vendors build their software independent of other vendors' needs. Corporate headquarters is the first place where the integration is attempted. This is where standards are needed and can make a huge impact.
Typically, an enterprise—whether it be a restaurant chain or airplane maker—has certain enterprise systems that are known as line-of-business (LOB) applications. Corporate employees use these LOB applications to place orders, manage suppliers and customers, generate reports, and make decisions. There are CRM systems to manage customer information; ERP systems to manage suppliers, orders, and inventory; HR systems to manage employees; and so on. All of these systems require interfacing with other systems to exchange information and data. Without standards, all of these applications would require custom point-to-point integration with another application, as shown in Figures 1 and 2.
Figure 1. Custom integration in store for store systems and applications (Click on the picture for a larger image)
Figure 2. Custom integration of systems and applications at headquarters (Click on the picture for a larger image)
This process of custom integration is expensive and time-consuming. In addition, it limits the options that are available for an enterprise. For example, an enterprise will have to reinvest if one of the systems is replaced or a new system is purchased. In addition, these custom integrations require maintenance based on the needs of the organization, which is a huge cost to the organization. Standards-based integration helps reduce the cost of integration and maintenance required to keep it up.
Standards-based application integration reduces the total cost of ownership and provides the freedom for an enterprise to select the best-of-breed applications, as opposed to being locked in with applications from a single vendor.
Figures 3 and 4 show the integration of various applications based on standards. This reduces the cost of ownership for an enterprise. Irrespective of the vendor, platform, and the application language, integration becomes easier when all vendors adhere to an industry standard. Sometimes, it can require extra work for the vendors; however, the benefits outweigh the cost of development to comply with the standards. The biggest beneficiaries, however, are the consumers of these applications—that is, retailers. As service-oriented architecture adoption increases in retail, the loosely coupled integration will make it easier to replace legacy applications incrementally, as opposed to the current rip-and-replace methodology.
Figure 3. Standards-based integration of systems and applications at store (Click on the picture for a larger image)
Figure 4. Standards-based integration of systems and applications at corporate headquarters (Click on the picture for a larger image)
Association of Retail Technology Standards (ARTS)
Microsoft Corporation is an active member of the Association of Retail Technology Standards (ARTS), which is the standards organization of the National Retail Federation (NRF). ARTS is an international membership organization that is dedicated to reducing the costs of technology through standards. Since 1993, ARTS has been delivering application standards exclusively to the retail industry.
Founded in 1999, the International XML Retail Cooperative (IXRetail) has made great progress. It builds on the ARTS Data Model to develop standard XML schemas and message sets to ease application-to-application (A-to-A) integration within a retail enterprise. All IXRetail schemas meet the following guidelines:
- Developed by Industry and XML experts
- Comply with W3C Guidelines
- Operate on all platforms
- Incorporate GS1 (UCC), ISO, and other existing standards
In the IXRetail part of ARTS, the Microsoft team serves on the technical committee that helps ensure that best practices are followed. Microsoft brought a new group into ARTS, the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM). This group was interested in developing a standard that will allow in-store applications to be aware of the condition of equipment, such as ovens, fryers, or refrigerators. This is an example of Microsoft's continued contribution to the expansion of value by adding infrastructure in the store or restaurant.
Realizing the demand for standards in the food-services industry, Microsoft also took the leadership role in creating a subcommittee to focus on the food-services standards. Moin Moinuddin from Microsoft chairs the sub committee, with the mission to extend IXRetail standards to the food-services industry.
Standards provide great flexibility and adaptability to retailers. Using standards in retail business will reduce the cost and allow the retailers to select best-of-breed applications.
Microsoft supports this effort, through active participation in standards bodies and technologies.