Although object-oriented, component-based (OO/CB) systems development has rarely lived up to its promise, iCentrix in Salem, NH, has done an outstanding job with its Component Frameworks for eBusiness Solutions. The company’s patented Integrated Component Environment, or ICE™, is a set of configurable components designed using a visual object-modeling tool. Within ICE, iCentrix objects are designed to perform generalized technical tasks that enable developers to think and work at a higher level than they can with typical development tools such as Java, ASP, and VB.
So far, the three-year-old company has implemented its e-business solutions in marketing, customer service, order processing, purchasing and inventory management, and production and accounting environments for companies such as Kestral Communications, MyTeam.com, MuseumShop.com, and Crownbooks.
iCentrix considers the toughest part of any object-oriented development environment to be defining both the objects and the relationships among them. The objects can’t be too bloated, nor can they be too granular if the system is to retain its flexibility, extensibility, and scalability. Easier said than done, that’s for sure!
iCentrix uses stored procedures to encapsulate business rules, which define what things are, how things connect, and what the data means and can do. Each stored procedure is triggered by one or more objects. “Get price,” for example, can be triggered by a promotion object, a product object, a business rule, or metadata about an order.
All components are designed for a Web-based environment, which means that the user interface is not only highly configurable, but changes dynamically based on what the user is doing at any given moment.
The Web interface is managed through a fast and simplified common gateway interface using executable code, and there are no Java servlets or other utilities to slow the system down. The component framework runs on a Windows IIS Web server, or alternatively on an Apache server on Unix or Linux, with any ODBC-compliant database. The ICE can be integrated with any number of external applications via a variety of methods and protocols, including TCP, HTTP, SOAP XML, EDI, FTP, SQL, or ODBC data exchange.
The Integrated Component Environment is highly configurable, which is the whole point. For example, iCentrix has set up the system to handle a dynamic online product catalog, an order entry shopping cart, transaction processing, order fulfillment, order notification, merchandise management, business rules for promotions, personalized shopping, multi-dimensional pricing, and vendor management.
Note, however, that the “fulfillment” component of iCentrix does not encompass a warehouse management system with location or pick/pack management. It could be configured to do so, but has not as yet been. The systems support for fulfillment houses consists of order management and customer management functions that a typical WMS cannot accomplish.
Because it is Web-based, the iCentrix product lends itself well to hosted solutions and remote customer service reps or other remote access applications. Indeed, iCentrix has set up a formal Fulfillment Partner Program that provides systems support for call centers and fulfillment distribution centers (either in-house or third-party).
In the case of MuseumShop.com, administrative personnel at MuseumShop add and remove products, run promotions and sales, add new partners and vendors, track sales, monitor traffic, and perform customer service through a Web-based interface. Their museum and supplier partners, in turn, have secure remote access to view their own products, inventory, orders, sales, and history. The system creates monthly financial statements and interfaces with a number of financial, warehouse management, and payment systems.
Process, not package
iCentrix has a lot going for it. Its implementation of OO/CB technology is superior to that of anyone else in the direct commerce field. This gives the company’s systems a dynamic flexibility that is virtually impossible to achieve any other way. A “prototype-based” approach also ensures that systems are produced both quickly and in response to actual user feedback, reducing the surprise-and-frustration level of the typical development environment.
Those are the pros. The cons are that you are not acquiring a packaged solution with iCentrix. While its development process is streamlined and efficient, you are required to undertake that development for the purpose of using the iCentrix tools. This may not differ much from the ordinary set-up requirements of many other systems because it is a prototype development process, but it is a development process nonetheless.
Of course, if you can’t find a packaged solution that meets most of your critical requirements, then development is essential, and the ICE framework is likely to be an appropriate platform on which to pursue it, so long as you are comfortable with a Web-based solution. Security is not an issue with iCentrix, which uses Secure Socket Layers plus a variety of encryption algorithms to safeguard all data and database access.
The bottom line is that iCentrix can implement innovative, flexible approaches to customer and order management that would likely be much more difficult to develop with a standard systems approach. Its rules-based component management also imposes discipline on the development process that serves as both a road map and a safety net. iCentrix does a good job of leveraging a lot of the Web’s potential to turn direct commerce into an interactive and dynamic relationship between merchant and customer.
Ernie Schell is president of Marketing Systems Analysis, Inc. He can be reached by phone at (215) 396-0660, by fax at (215) 396-0696, and by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Newpoint Technology Park
11 Red Roof Lane
Salem, NJ 03079
Contact: Bob Collopy (email@example.com)
Phone: (603) 893-3922, ext. 13
Fax: (603) 893-3849