BRP rolls wilh SharePoint

Many document management systems (DMSs) were cobbled together a few years ago with the best components available at the time.

However, in this space the technology has evolved dramatically. As a result, companies are now outgrowing their initial home-grown DMSs, and are looking for sturdier next-generation platforms that offer more features and functionality for the long haul.

BRP is a case in point. The recreational vehicle provider developed its award-winning BOSSWeb, a B2B extranet, in 2002 with state-of-the-art technologies.  Although BRP’s 5,000 dealers around the globe were comfortable and happy with BOSSWeb’s functionality, by 2006 many problems became apparent with the application server performance.

The technology used to build it is no longer supported, and the technology used to connect it to the back-end will soon be obsolete. Managing the aging legacy system and the 60,000 documents in its database was a headache for BRP IT staff.

“We needed to change servers and do a major refresh of our Internet applications,” says Yves Dauphinais, director of IT development and application support at BRP. “BOSSWeb is a critical application, as it manages our day-to-day relationship with our dealers via sales orders, warranties, technical publications, and promotions. We wanted to improve it without changing the look-and-feel.”

In September 2006, BRP partnered with Montréal-based consulting firm CGI to rebuild BOSSWeb on a stable, long-term platform that would preserve the user interface its dealers were accustomed to using, while also providing the flexible architecture needed to accommodate future business growth and technology evolution. 

CGI recommended Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), based on a technical study which showed it offered superior document management capabilities. In addition, CGI recommended moving directly to MOSS 2007, which was not yet released but available in beta version, instead of MOSS 2003. According to CGI director Fazil Chouakri, this was in order to avoid migration issues later.

BRP needed a platform they could use to grow their business in the future, says Chouakri. The company reviews regularly the number of dealers selling its products in various regions. Although BRP’s immediate concern was to upgrade its DMS, the company also wanted to find a platform that could support the long-term growth of the business. MOSS offers a number of features to facilitate this.

“As BRP grows in new markets, they need to support new languages, currencies and date formats and so on,” says Chouakri.

BRP also has some high-level strategic requirements which MOSS supports. The company is well on its path to developing a service oriented architecture (SOA) system infrastructure. In accordance with SOA principles, the CGI team redesigned BOSSWeb to decouple the business logic, application and data into SOA-friendly modular components. “So you can change the application without affecting the data,” says Chouakri.

And this will facilitate evolution towards a full-blown SOA architecture in the future, he says. “If BRP decides tomorrow to move to a SOA solution, it will be easy to isolate all BOSSWeb’s services and make them accessible to other applications.”

The project ran for a year before MOSS was up and running in October 2007. A great deal of preparatory work was needed, says Dauphinais. “It takes time to be ready, but we wanted to do it right the first time.”

The first order of business was modernizing the underlying code by rewriting it in Microsoft’s ASP .Net 2.0, which can support any hardware platform and multiple programming languages.

“We did a lot of development work in .Net so we could use MOSS as the repository for all definitions used in the system, and manage security as well,” he says, adding that CGI handled all the coding and technical aspects, while BRP was responsible for the functional specs.

Data cleansing also needed to be done to update the content prior to migration.

“We were starting with an existing system, and we had many documents that became needless over time,” says Dauphinais.

In addition, new meta-data for thousands of documents needed to be defined and added, as MOSS can accommodate about 20 meta-tags per document that make querying faster and easier.

The user group was responsible for this portion, but adding this task to daily work-loads would have been time-consuming. Instead, an experienced retiree who had in-depth knowledge about the documents was contracted.

“It would have been a headache without him,” says Dauphinais. “Our business is seasonal, and we had to implement MOSS in time for our Ski-Doo snowmobile season. Worst case, we would have had to upload with less meta-data. The system would have worked, but not with the same level of success.”

Preparing the documents for the final upload into MOSS also required special steps. “The team developed an Excel spreadsheet with all the meta-data related to each document, and a one-shot program to upload all the documents into MOSS,” Dauphinais says, adding that this made the final upload easy.

Although dealers were happy with the old system, they are now fully enjoying the new one, he says. To minimize disruption, retraining and other costly change management issues, BRP invested great efforts to preserve the old system’s interface by recreating a similar one in MOSS.

That said, many improvements were made seamlessly at the back-end, although the front-end interface the dealers were accustomed to using remained essentially unchanged. With MOSS, faster index-based searches are now possible to find all documents related to a keyword, says Dauphinais.

“Before, they had to drill down to find a document, for example, search ‘Ski-Doo’, then ‘2005′, then ‘technical publications’. Now, dealers can get all the content associated with any keyword immediately.”

Taking advantage of MOSS’ sophisticated security features also required preparation, says Dauphinais. The new system offered the ability to define special groups, a security feature that was not available in the old system. “We have a lot of groups, so it took time to get a clear picture of how we wanted to set it up.”

While there are few issues with allowing dealers unfettered access to technical documents, there are other types of documents such as sales orders and promotions that are more sensitive, he explains. “For example, promotions in Europe are not the same that we have in North America.”

With MOSS, BRP can manage documents pertaining to a particular region or group more efficiently, and control who sees what. These options didn’t exist at the same level of details in the old BOSSWeb, so BRP needed to develop an access and security structure.

“MOSS adds more flexibility, but also more complexity,” he says. “Because it was new to us, we needed to work out all the requirements for all the possibilities the tools offered us.” 

To accommodate this, the project team developed a grid to map out all the new access and security rights to documents.

 “Security changed a lot,” he says. “Each dealership may have many users who can access the system, but there’s always a main user who can assign security rights to others.” 

To support BossWeb’s new security structure, BRP trained internal staff at its call centres so they could help dealers set up and manage security. “But most of our dealers didn’t need help – it’s pretty intuitive.”

Every IT implementation project has some bumps in the road, and BRP encountered a few, but overall we are satisfied with the end-result, says Dauphinais.

“Although MOSS wasn’t officially released, we trusted our partners, CGI and Microsoft. Bottom line, they were able to do almost everything we asked.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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