Frontline Distribution

Frontline sells magazines through 55,000 retailers across the UK and Eire and trade with the biggest multiple retailers through to specialist newsagents and small independent shops.

Frontline approached Cambridge Software Engineering (CSE) to discuss potential development of an application to manage data processing for magazine subscriptions delivery. This process was initially managed by a team using an Excel Spreadsheet based system while volumes were low. However, Frontline wished to be able to scale the system to handle larger volumes whilst incorporating greater automation and traceability as part of this process.

Challenges

A number of aspects of the existing system needed to be addressed in the development of the new system:

  • Spreadsheet-based system - The existing system offered little in the way of input validation, did not provide for concurrent user access and was not scalable.
  • Disparate and loosely structured input formats – A number of CSV input formats with no formally documented file format were being used as an input to the extant system.
  • ‘Air-gaps’ between user systems – A number of systems utilised as part of the supply chain process involved manual input. CSE identified areas that could be automated and developed the required system interfaces to fulfil this.
  • Lack of auditing and traceability – Due to expansion of the team and scale of operation, a key requirement of any future system was the ability to audit data and configuration changes in the system.
  • Inconsistent outputs– A potential advantage of creating a bespoke system was the ability to enforce naming conventions on the output and ensure a consistent archiving location.
  • Tight timescales – There was a short window to provide the new capability, requiring an efficient and tightly managed development process to successfully transition to the new system.

Process

During an initial investigation and planning phase the following activities were conducted:

  1. Initial investigation – The existing process was examined by the team at CSE to define the functional requirements of the system.
  2. Requirements gathering and Q&A session – Users of the existing system were involved to help identify areas of the current system which required improvement and to further expand on the functional requirements. Any touch points with other systems were highlighted and examined.
  3. Development of functional specification and proposal – An initial proposal outlining the functional specification and design of the system was created. This included detailed specification of system interfaces, infrastructure requirements and estimated timescales/costs.
  4. Proposal review meeting and discussion – A review session was conducted with all stakeholders of the system to incorporate any additional feedback on the proposal.

At commencement of the development phase, weekly meetings were held in order to continue the feedback process on the following elements:

  1. Development of wireframes – Customer feedback on the development of an initial set of wireframe UI mock-ups ensured there was a common understanding of the appearance and behaviour of the final product and reduced the possibility for unexpected changes. This developed confidence for both Frontline and CSE that timescales were realistic and achievable.
  2. Implementation and iterative release cycle – Two prototypes were developed prior to the release of the final product to illicit user feedback during development.
  3. User Acceptance Testing and Go-Live – The final product was tested by the customer prior to acceptance and within the anticipated timescales.

Impact

The team at Frontline are now able to validate input data and ensure the quality of outputs generated by the system. In addition to this, the following tangible benefits were achieved.

  • The supply chain team is now able to work together concurrently, secure in the knowledge that changes are audited.
  • Greater integration with existing systems has led to a reduced workload for the team.

Technology

  • Microsoft ASP.Net MVC - A patterns-based application development framework for building dynamic websites that enables a clean separation of concerns.
  • Microsoft Entity Framework - An object-relational mapper that enables .NET developers to work with relational data using domain-specific objects. 
  • Oracle 11g - In order to fit with existing infrastructure, CSE opted to utilise the extant database platform in preference to Microsoft SQL Server.
  • Visual Studio Online – Secure centralised source control and application lifecycle management tool. 


Further Information

For more information about this case study, or our services please contact Dr Nick Rogers on 01223 968100. Testimonials and references arranged on request.