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E-Commerce in the Cloud

Oct. 1, 2009
It takes some guts to entrust the e-commerce interface with some of your largest customers to a bank of servers in some far-off place. Mayer Electric Supply describes why the move makes sense.

Mayer Electric Supply, Birmingham, Ala., has become one of the first companies to implement the new WebSpan cloud-based integration platform developed by Hubspan and IBM. The service gives Mayer the ability to provide its customers with seamless integration to its online catalog and e-procurement services using services hosted and managed on the Internet “cloud” by Hubspan.

The move to cloud computing was the best option to avoid the cost and headaches of developing home-grown solutions for all the large industrial and government customers that wanted to be able to move seamlessly from their own enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to the shopping cart in Mayer's e-commerce system and back to the customer's enterprise system to create and approve a purchase order and then send an electronic data interchange (EDI) 850 document back to Mayer's system, where it becomes a sales order (this is known as punch-in and punch-out), says Barry Carden, vice president and chief information officer for Mayer.

“We spent about $70,000 trying to do punch-out ourselves, it never worked correctly, and it was a headache from the word ‘go’,” Carden says. “Then when we wanted to add another customer, we were looking at several thousand more for another consultant.” A key part of the difficulty came in integrating with the wide variety of systems the customers use.

Mayer's in-house information technology crew of 14 people was already very busy managing Mayer's systems across the company's 57 locations. “It's hard to have people with specialties in all areas. We didn't want to invest in additional resources to do that,” Carden says.

With the cloud-based system, Mayer only has to maintain a catalog for each customer. Hubspan acts as the middleman, taking information from the customer and integrating it into Mayer's catalog for that customer. Hubspan handles the punch-out procedures and provides the ability for any system to work with any system. “That's their purpose in life,” Carden says.

Mayer had tried to solve this puzzle with a different system where the provider also hosted Mayer's online catalog. “That sounded better at first, but when we wanted to make changes to the catalog, they were not willing to change their catalog to give what we wanted,” Carden says. So in the interest of providing better service to its customers, Mayer changed course a year-and-a-half ago and went with Hubspan in an arrangement where Mayer continues to own and control its catalog data.

Many potential users express concerns about the security and reliability of using cloud-based systems, concerns that Carden shares, but that wasn't really a problem in this case, because none of Mayer's data is hosted in the cloud — Mayer's data remains behind its own firewall, says Carden.

“If they were hosting my data, I'd have big concerns,” he says. “There's the issue with what happens when their hardware goes down? You lose a whole bunch of control with cloud computing, and I'd have a lot of concerns. But since I don't have any data hosted out on the cloud, I don't have any security concerns. It depends what you're doing in the cloud.”

About the Author

Doug Chandler | Senior Staff Writer

Doug has been reporting and writing on the electrical industry for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing since 1992 and still finds the industry’s evolution and the characters who inhabit its companies endlessly fascinating. That was true even before e-commerce, LED lighting and distributed generation began to disrupt so many of the electrical industry’s traditional practices.

Doug earned a BA in English Literature from the University of Kansas after spending a few years in KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism, then deciding he absolutely did not want to be a journalist. In the company of his wife, two kids, two dogs and two cats, he spends a lot of time in the garden and the kitchen – growing food, cooking, brewing beer – and helping to run the family coffee shop.

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