CVS finds middleware prescription for acquisition flu

PURPOSE: Effectively transfer point-of-sale pharmacy information into centralized data store.

APPLICATION: Pharmacy Information Data Warehouse -- One of the major business trends in recent years has seen small, local drug stores and pharmacies giving way to larger, regional -- and soon, perhaps, national -- drug store chains. In just about every case this consolidation of operations means consolidation of systems.

The need to connect diverse types of systems, even far-flung point-of-sale data terminals, to new central offices has proved to be one of the most pressing tasks for many I/S operations.

Middleware can become a key part of implementing corporate strategy. Look at Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS, a drug store chain that started in the Northeast and has quickly spread, often through acquisition, through the Mid-Atlantic, South and Midwest.

At the end of 1997, CVS operated 3,888 stores in 24 states and the District of Columbia, with 1997 net revenues set at $12.7 billion. CVS made a pointed bid to become the nation's largest chain drug in February of this year when it bid to acquire Troy, Mich.-based Arbor Drugs for $1.48 billion.CVS has used middleware purchased from Momentum Software, Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., to sew together its store networks.


The clear winner in the middleware category was the RX-2000 project for CVS pharmacies. They needed to have centralized access to all customer data and update the data warehouse. After a merger and acquisition of Revco pharmacies, they also needed the flexibility to be able to integrate those new stores into their online inventory and prescription system. CVS has a 1500+ node VSAT wide area network. The performance of the communications software was critical to the success of their project.

They relied heavily on Momentum Software's XIPC message-oriented middleware to provide platform independence, protocol abstraction, asynchronous operation and queuing/spooling support. Theirs was a full Unix solution which made it the right fit for CVS's HP-UX, SCO-Unix and DG/OS environment.

This is a repeat for XIPC as they were the key to Canadian Pacific Railway receiving the application development award in the middleware category for 1996.
The corporation's aggressive approach to acquisitions can only truly succeed if the company's IT teams follow through with efficient execution. That's where Ken Mercier, CVS project manager, and Mike Nicolay, CVS applied technology architect, came in.

Said Nicolay, "We've been dealing with middleware for a couple of years. We're using Momentum's XIPC as a tool for converting stores and systems."

In brief, the CVS architecture requires centralization of customer data at the corporate headquarters to update the data warehouse. The project covers the pharmacy part of the organization. At the store, a SCO Unix system is put in place. It accumulates data from various pharmacist terminals. Information is transmitted to CVS headquarters via a 1500 node VSAT wide-area network. There reside two high-end Pyramid computer systems attached via a bridge.

Project deliverables, said Gonen Ziv, vice president, product management, Momentum, included a load-balancing scheme, a high-level API for SCO Unix applications, streaming to a C++ object message handler, and an XIPC-to-Tuxedo transaction processor interface for HP/UX.

In the end, the benefit is that prescriptions can be filled at any store in the CVS network. The system enables CVS to track inventory trends and anticipate customer spending patterns. The system also effectively integrates new chains into the CVS fold.

Given that CVS is always growing, and its computing needs, in turn, are always growing, scalability is a crucial factor in arriving at a middleware strategy. "We do a-half-a-million to one-million [prescription] transactions a day," noted Nicolay. Of course, customers do not queue up for prescriptions in harmonious order. They drop by first thing in the morning, at lunch, at the end of the workday. This activity could translate, for example, into peak transaction rates surpassing 35 transactions/sec.

And this is not a scalability requirement that can always be estimated up front on paper. The acquisitions have been rapid, and big. "No one can anticipate that kind of growth," said Nicolay. CVS management pursues acquisition opportunities when and where they arise. They count on MIS to make the computer parts of the equation work.

- Jack Vaughan


Systems integrator, middleware vendor, and MIS staff participated in project.

Successful scaling as network of stores is enlarged.




Pyramid systems/Momentum XIPC

SCO Unix


Oracle database

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.