Dixons Carphone started trading in 1989, and is now the largest independent retailer of mobile communications in Europe, with over 1300 stores in ten countries and a 22% market share in the UK.
The group employs over 8000 people working in retail stores, support centres, online and direct sales teams. ISe-Net Solutions Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary, providing technology solutions exclusively to the Dixons Carphone Group.
ISe-Net Solutions was established in October 2000 to provide technology solutions and support for the Dixons Carphone Group. Since the Group makes heavy use of technology, ISe-Net Solutions has a wide range of responsibilities and is divided into the following main areas:
- Retail and distribution
- CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and data warehousing
- Services – Insurance and repairs
- Online content and e-commerce.
The Dixons Carphone Group has experienced rapid expansion and ISe-Net Solutions has grown with it, from 52 employees to over 440 today. Uniface’s Application Platform Suite, Uniface, is its strategic development tool and the Group considers Uniface to be one of the enabling factors behind its fast growth.
Uniface adoption began in 1996 and Dixons Carphone’s reasons for selecting Uniface included its three-tier architecture, its cross-platform abilities and database independence, its fast development time, and the ease of re-using code.
In the year 2000, ISe-Net Solutions was not sure whether to stay with Uniface. “There was a lot of hype about new technologies, such as Java and traditional development environments seemed to be on the way out,” says Bastani. “We were concerned about having a tool that may not have a future. We started looking into other strategic tools, in particular Java and JBoss.” JBoss is an open source implementation of the J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) application server platform.
We could clearly see that the Uniface developers are two or three times more productive in terms of turning around solutions. That’s important to us, because being in the mobile market, we need to be able to respond to our customers very quickly.”
– Farhad Bastani, Head of Retail Development
ISe-Net Solutions decided to use J2EE for two new applications, one handling insurance and the other repairs. However, by 2004 the company concluded that Uniface was the correct choice for its core development tool. There were two main factors in this decision. First, ISe-Net Solutions found J2EE development to be less productive because of its complexity. “We could clearly see that the Uniface developers are two or three times more productive in terms of turning round solutions,” Bastani explains. “That’s important to us, because being in the mobile market, we need to be able to respond to our customers very quickly.”
The second key issue was clarification of Uniface’s commitment to the product because so many other vendors no longer offer traditional development tools. “In 2005 things have definitely changed,” said Bastani. “We see new enthusiasm within the market for proven development environments and Uniface continues to be a strategic development tool for Uniface. It does impact us in terms of our strategic solution. We were moving away from Uniface between 2000 and 2004; but now we have started going back and develop more and more in Uniface. It is proven technology to us. We know it works; we know it is scaleable. Our core applications will be developed in Uniface for the foreseeable future.”
Uniface Applications in Action
The Dixons Carphone hosts all of its core applications on servers running OpenVMS, located in the UK. There are nine Compaq AlphaServer systems with a mix of ES40 4-CPU servers and GS140 8-CPU servers, all running open VMS. The Oracle database runs on two IBM P690 machines, supported by IBM Shark storage servers. Two additional servers handle finance and network activations.
Retail outlets and offices throughout Europe access these systems across a Virtual Private Network (VPN) link. The retail outlets use a terminal emulator, while head offices run Windows applications using thin clients. The emphasis is on fast real-time access while keeping bandwidth requirements low.
Point of Sale (PIE)
Known as PIE, this is the largest application and it handles Point of Sale. It is a comprehensive tool that enables Dixons Carphone retailers to process all kinds of customer orders, removing the need for any manual paperwork. Its functions include:
- Handset sales, upgrades and renewals
- Exchange and refunds
- Number portability
- Accessories and special offers
- Credit checking
- Order tracking
- Insurance claims handling
In addition, the system provides real-time reporting both for stores and for head office. A key feature of PIE is that it walks users through the complex process of choosing between a multitude of different options. “We use Uniface to provide workflow to help our customers to select the right handset and tariff and ask the right questions,” explains Bastani.
Two years ago we were going to develop this in Java, this year we didn’t think twice, we automatically went down the route of Uniface.”
– Farhad Bastani, Head of Retail Development
The nature of the mobile telecommunications business means that frequent updates are required in order to keep pace with the market. In addition, every country has its own requirements and offers a different selection of products. Support for different languages is also essential. Uniface is particularly suitable because it enables modular applications.
Dixons Carphone is able to pick and choose which modules apply for any given country. It also makes use of data-driven components, making them easily customisable. As an example, validation of details like telephone numbers and postal codes differs in every territory. Using data-driven components lets each country define its own validation rules without requiring a change in the application itself.
Inventory Management, also called IMS, is another major Uniface application developed in-house. Features include:
- Stock consignments
- Stock takes
- Ordering suggestions
- Return to and from vendors
- Stock re-valuation
Finance & Purchasing (Aptos)
For its financial application, ISe-Net Solutions uses another Uniface application, Aptos, supplied by a third party – B-Plan Information Systems. Features include:
- General ledger
- Accounts payable and accounts receivable
- Electronic funds transfer
- Direct debit collection
- Debtor management
- Purchase order production
Other Uniface Applications
Although ISe-Net Solutions created its insurance and repair Applications using J2EE, the company built a Uniface front-end for each of these applications, making it easy to integrate with its other applications. Uniface is also used for a content management system driving the Dixons Carphone Web sites. The most recent Uniface project is a data capture system for billing and data warehousing. “Two years ago we were going to develop this in Java,” comments Bastani. “This year we didn’t think twice, we automatically went down the route of Uniface.”
Key Benefits of Uniface
ISe-Net Solutions has realized several key benefits using Uniface. First, it is scalable and high performing, which is critically important when there are 800 or 900 stores across Europe all using the applications in real-time. Second, it is highly productive, more so than Java according to the company’s direct experience. Third, Uniface lends itself well to modular, loosely coupled applications. This enables applications to be upgraded in stages, making maintenance and ongoing development easier. Fourth, Uniface applications have a consistent look and feel.
“It was interesting to compare Uniface with Java in this respect,” says Bastani. “With Uniface, you are actually ensuring that the developer goes with a very specific look and feel. You can control that. If you look at all our applications, the look and feel is exactly the same, whether it is something we developed today or two years ago. That wasn’t the case with our Java insurance and repairs applications, because we didn’t have the ability to enforce look and feel.”
Finally, the three-tier Uniface architecture enables flexibility of deployment. This made it easy for Dixons Carphone to have the same application accessed via Telnet across Europe, while using Windows in head offices.
ISe-Net Solutions expects its Uniface team to grow. It currently comprises around 23 dedicated developers. One of the goals is to improve the efficiency of its applications. Faster processing means less waiting for customers and the ability for retail stores to increase their business. The Group’s continued expansion also drives application enhancement. As an example, the current inventory management system is inadequate for the large new stores planned across Europe. The company will invest in radical improvements to its existing software, rather than take the risk of adopting completely new third-party or in-house applications.
Another goal is to explore other types of client, perhaps offering a Web interface alongside the current terminal emulation environment. It is also possible that one day the main applications may be offered to other organizations.
Integration with third parties is crucial. Dixons Carphone has gateways to many different networks but does not yet use Uniface for this. The capabilities of Uniface 8 and 9 will enable this. The company already makes use of XML to exchange data with partners and enhanced support for XML Web Services in Uniface 9 is likely to be important.