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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Inbound interfaces – an example from SAP

As you might imagine, any business that starts using a system like SAP will most likely want to transfer data from their old system. This might be anything from customer details, to open invoices on customer/supplier accounts, to closing ledger balances. Transferring can be done two ways, manually to using an interface.

Ultimately, using an interface is probably best as it automates mundane work and is likely to be less error prone than manual entry. For example, can you imagine and organisation with 2,000 customers, each with 5 outstanding invoices? That’s 10,000 entries to be made manually – not an ideal scenario. So an interface would be the best option, but what is an interface?

In this case, we can describe an interface as an agreed format to transfer data from one system to another. SAP for example uses a concept call iDocs to not only transfer data within SAP, but also receive data from outside.  You can think of an iDoc as a simple text file, with lines of text. The first line is a control record, with each line thereafter a data record. In simple terms, the control record tells the system where the data which follows is to go. Each record (line) in the iDoc is 1,000 characters long, and the position of each character determines what the data means – the positions are defined by SAP. Here is an example of what an iDoc record might look like:

ORDERHEADER 1088    1089    12500.50   24121998 Micky Mouse

Normally, a programmer develops some programme code which can extract data from the sending system to comply with iDoc format. Then, when the programme is run, the iDoc is read by SAP and the relevant data fields are populated e.g. customer details, open invoices.






Keeping data secure

Image from wikipedia

Image from wikipedia

It is good practice to keep a backup copy of key business data. Basis practice is to take a backup of key organisational data regularly on a medium that can be stored offsite if necessary. Arguably, in a cloud computer environment a backup is not needed, but many organisations still (and probably always will) maintain some data internally.

One quite old method of storing a backup copy of data – or even storing data – is on magnetic tape. As recently noted in the Economistthis backup medium has gained a new lease of life. Cloud storage has become so cheap and fast, that the tape could have been seen as redundant. But one thing a magnetic tape has is portability – it can thus be easily secured anywhere, away from normal business risks or even hackers. As noted in the Economist article, many organisations also now generate huge volumes of data (i.e. big data) which may be useful for analysis. Tapes can easily store such data.

The article also notes four advantages tapes have as a backup medium:

1- data can be retrieved fast

2- power is not needed to store the data

3- there are secure as mentioned

4-  they can be repaired (spliced).

There are also likely to be improvements in tape technology in coming years as their value for storing large amounts of data has come back into vogue.

Technology must have business benefits

A production manager I once worked said to me “you have to show me the business benefits of that new thing”.  He was referring to a new information system function the company wanted to implement. I have since always tried to remember this. We probably all want the latest and greatest piece of technology,  but what benefits will it bring us. And in a business, we also want benefits – lower costs, more efficient processes for example.

Here is a short story which I hope shows you how even the smallest business can use technology top deliver business benefits. Where I live, we have a milk delivery man. Recently, he left a leaflet at my door about a new initiative called mymilkman.ie. I can’t think of  a more traditional business than doorstep milk delivery, so you can image my curiosity – I had to ask what the benefits are for the milkman. So, I duly asked our milkman. He said the system allows customers to pay using a debit or credit card, and this has saved one milkman he knows about 10 hours per week – even though only 50% of customers signed up.  Normally, customers would pay by cash and this implies calling at a separate time than the normal delivery time.  Add to the time-saved the costs saved in lower fuel and it seems like a big benefit to any milkman.

The system has been created by several Irish dairies, and no doubt there is a business benefit for them too – probably something like more accurate demand forecasting, better cash-flow and so on.