How we helped a client get more from its data, for less

Flexible, accessible data is key to running an agile business. Re-using it wherever possible, in as many different ways as you can, is the smartest way to turn a profit while keeping your customers happy.

The real challenge comes when you need to link your online records with a real-world operation, as one of our clients did at the end of 2015.

Its website was underpinned by cache of customer records, product descriptions and transaction details, all of which needed to be accessible, both online and in person. Added to this was the fact that the same system had to update – in real time – in response to a series of fast-moving auctions, in which customers could bid both in person at the auction house, and from home through a browser.

Our client tasked us with coding a background application that would open up the data while complying with its established business rules and keeping its customers’ private details safe.
This is how we did it.

The Problem

Our client is one of the UK’s biggest car auction houses, and having worked with it for years, we already understood the way its data was structured. We used that as a starting-point, and identified the issues it was facing:

  • It needed a new customer-accessible website, populated with fresh catalogue data drawn down from an in-house system.
  • It didn’t want to give web developers access to the core data to protect customers’ private details.
  • Earlier attempts to link the website to the database had introduced inefficient queries, which had slowed it down.
  • For the in-house team, the fact that external agents had access to the data constrained them in that, to make any changes, they would need to synchronise their amendments with multiple interested parties.

The fix

It was obvious from the start that the core data was the company’s primary asset, yet the route it was accessed was proving to be a serious pinch point. Because anyone who could draw on it was only ever presented with a set of raw results, it was up to them to work out how they could translate the output into understandable, useful content for the web, showroom catalogues, live bidding systems and so on.

Each developer worked on its own implementation, often overloading the database with more requests than were strictly necessary, and repeating work that someone else had already done elsewhere in a different content. Combined, it was an inefficient drain on both time and resources.

It soon became clear that the answer was to create a bespoke API (application program interface) to sit between the data and the client’s out-of-house developers. Doing so meant we could shift responsibility for a lot of the leg-work to the server itself, which would output fully-formed answers, ready for immediate use in any format and any media while fielding fewer incoming queries.

Further, because the API acted like a digital clean room between the developers and our client’s key asset – its data – it was easy to keep a handle on what was, and wasn’t, made public. Private data, such as customers’ pricing details, past sales and so on, was quarantined, and that freed up our client to provide the API and associated documentation to any third parties who wanted to produce their own bolt-on applications.
The data was now more flexible and more valuable than ever.

The future

It took us no more than a couple of weeks to get an initial draft spec written up, and we had a prototype ready within a month of start of starting work. We iterated it several times based on developers’ feature requests in the run-up to making it live at the end of March.

By limiting the number of routes into the client’s database, we’ve reinvented how it works with – and gives access to – its data. The API itself runs as a completely stand-alone process that can be started and stopped without affecting existing business systems, and it finally gives the in-house team freedom to work on the data without reference to third-parties.

Better yet, it’s more efficient than the system it’s set to replace. That’s allowed us to offload the database, processes and websites onto a series of lighter-weight Amazon servers, which together provide a higher degree of fault tolerance – not to mention a significant cost-saving.

Are you facing similar issues? Call us today on 01276 415787 or email info@humboldt.co.uk and let’s talk about how we can help you make the most of your data.

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