AWB automates the wheat belt with .NET

With 20 million tonnes exported annually, wheat is Australia's largest crop export. For AWB Limited (previously the Australian Wheat Board), selling wheat and other grains globally will become easier thanks to a .NET based framework that uses XML-based data to exchange information with buyers and sellers around the world.

Several years ago, AWB ran a pilot test of a .NET version of its core Web server. The test convinced the IT staff that .NET technology was robust, and .it was chosen as the basis for AWB's future development.

The next target rewrite was the Grain Centre System (GCS). The system manages crops that are delivered by farmers to more than 20 sites throughout the north-eastern states. GCS was built on Microsoft's Distributed Network Architecture foundation, however the .NET version proved more flexible by allowing AWB to start building a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Tony Clement, IT integration manager with AWB Limited, says this set the stage for the company's future IT growth. "Fundamentally, .NET represented a real step forward for Microsoft technologies in providing an object-oriented architecture," he said. "Because of the uniqueness of the business - you're not going to find an off-the-shelf grain centre management system - there is no build or buy decision for us; we saw the need to begin writing reusable code. A services oriented architecture provides the organisation with an appropriate framework to leverage its existing assets, and also to provide enterprise application integration."

Although committed to a .NET framework for internal applications, Clement says AWB will integrate with J2EE so as to make best use of NetWeaver, SAP's application server middleware. NetWeaver was a key factor in AWB's decision to implement an SAP-based environment for its business back end, says Clement.

Linking SAP with GCS will tightly integrate inventory and financials management. The benefits of this integration will continue as AWB embraces the ongoing NOIE-Standards Australia effort to develop Bizdex (www.bizdex.com.au), a publicly-available repository of XML-based Web services.

Many supply chain players have missed out on automatic data exchange due to a lack of interoperability standards. Bizdex should fix this problem by even allowing small-business software to automatically import XML-based shipping documents from all manner of other systems. Farmers' MYOB or Quicken systems, for example, could query Bizdex to learn how to handle shipment records generated by AWB's SAP system, based on information from GCS.

"There are a lot of point-to-point solutions in place, but they're tough to maintain," says Clement. "If an organisation wants to participate in global value chains and take advantage of investments that companies like SAP and Microsoft are making, they need to look at implementing an SOA to support that. We hope that publicly available and standardised transactions will naturally create supply chain efficiencies."

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