Tracking fan belts and plugs

In some data warehouse case studies, the main challenge is usually the ability to implement and populate a data warehouse with useful data. For Parts America, a Kansas City, Mo.-based subsidiary of Western Auto, the issue was scalability.

Parts America, a brand-name distributor of do-it-yourself automotive parts, has close to 700 stores and is one of the largest retailers on the planet, according to David Copas, vice president of corporate information systems.

"We were afraid of scalability, plus we had a whole shop of mainframes," Copas lamented. "[Our data warehouse effort] was like [converting] from Baptist to Buddhist."

In late 1995, Parts America, with the help of Price Waterhouse, put out an RFP for a new retail tracking and data warehouse system. The company had just switched to a chain retail philosophy, making its 25-year-old legacy systems obsolete. One factor that played into picking a system is that Parts America is a "hard lines" retailer, meaning it satisfies people's needs, not wants. For example, said Copas, someone going into one of their stores to look for brake pads needs brake pads.

Ultimately, Parts America selected Retail Ideas (Interactive Data Evaluation Action Support) from JDA Software Group Inc., Phoenix. Retail Ideas is a suite of applications for analyzing an entire manufacturing business, and includes Olap functionality. It is based on technology from Silvon Software Inc., Westmont, Ill. In the last two years, Parts America has slowly phased in the new system so as not to disrupt the company's day-to-day operations.

The auto parts innovator also set out to undertake a large-scale and concerted training effort to get the information developers and end users completely up to speed on the new system. The system now has 95 users (all running Windows 95 clients with an NT backbone), and holds more than 300Gb worth of data, which is stored on an IBM AS/400 machine.

To ensure scalability, Parts America and JDA spent a month at IBM's Rochester, N.Y., TeraPlex center testing. Developers from IBM and Silvon also aided in the effort. After some system architecture tweaking, the system scaled to more than one-half terabyte of data, one of the largest retail system implementations to date.

"There were times when we didn't think it was going to work," said Teresa Orazel, lead program analyst for Parts America. "But it did."

While the project was ultimately successful, Copas and Orazel said the team had their moments of doubts and internal quarreling.

Their message to others facing a similar implementation is to be sure and have a good mechanism for open communication in place before the project starts.