Home Depot: Building With Objects (CommunicationsWeek; 01/12/98)

It turns out that home improvement isn't Home Depot's only strong suit. The home improvement giant is making Internet application construction as easy as applying a fresh coat of paint.

Home Depot is pioneering use of distributed object applications, some fronted by Java. The object foundation-based on the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA)-is a key IT initiative, as one of the fastest- growing retail chains in the country looks to use the standards-based objects to link together disparate systems. These systems include mainframes, Unix servers, transaction- processing systems, PCs and planned network computers and kiosks as the basis for a massive intranet.

Analysts said Home Depot's commitment to objects in general is unique, in part because retailers have lagged the financial and telecommunications industries in adopting component technologies.

"I haven't talked to any retailers on this scale," said Karen Boucher, a vice president at the Standish Group, a consultancy that specializes in distributed computing and object-oriented software environments.

None of the CORBA-based systems is in production, though Home Depot already has two Java applications up and running.

"One is a reporting system for district managers that gives statistical information about the stores, and the other is a touch- screen application that lets customers apply for a job in the stores," said Michael Anderson, director of information systems for the Atlanta-based chain. The job application system, which was installed in one store in December, will be rolled out to hundreds of locations this summer.

Indeed, that one application is a classic example of why companies are moving toward centrally managed, component-based infrastructures.

"We have around 600 stores, and we're adding another 133 this year," Anderson said. "So we're hiring an enormous number of people, 200 per store."

Home Depot expects to have 1,000 stores in the Americas by the year 2000. The aggressive growth plan demanded a convenient way to locate job applicants.

Home Depot had built a client/server version of the in-store job application system, but it was difficult to maintain. With Java, "the appeal to us was in having a graphical user interface, and something that was supportable in the long run and reduced training costs," Anderson said.

It took less than two months to write the code for the self- service job application system, "and it was the best quality system we've ever had here, because Java prevents a lot of errors," Anderson said.

Interest in object computing is on the rise among IT organizations, partly because of the rampant interest in Java, itself an object-oriented programming language.

According to a recent report by the Cutter Consortium, at least 75 percent of IT organizations are either exploring or using object technology. The study, which involved 200 companies and was co- sponsored by the Object

Management Group, found a smaller but still significant number (35 percent to 40 percent) making major investments in an object-oriented infrastructure.

The Standish Group has quantified a dramatic rise in the use of Object Request Brokers (ORBs) as a middleware framework. ORBs are growing at an 82 percent compounded annual growth rate, from a $136 million market last year to $817 million by the end of the decade. Even with the growth, these solutions will continue to represent a small portion of the $3.7 billion middleware marketplace, dominated by OLTP (OnLine Transaction Processing) monitors.

In Home Depot's IT shop of 360 developers, about 25 are already working on object development projects and 86 more are taking classes. "Our goal is to ultimately train everyone in this, since the operating system isn't the issue anymore," Anderson said.

The Java applications at Home Depot are part of a larger CORBA initiative. Anderson said the company was not religious about its choice of a distributed object model, and that it also evaluated Microsoft's Distributed COM.

Home Depot is using a Java application development, deployment and management system from Novera Software Inc. Last year, the home improvement giant signed a 10-year agreement to use Novera's Epic development and deployment system, including the vendor's Java application servers, which can run on any platform running a Java virtual machine. It permits any Java client to reach any Java server running on any of Home Depot's multiple computing platforms.

The Novera system takes an object and compiles it, adding all the elements necessary to hook into a CORBA infrastructure. At that point, the developer simply sets securities and permissions, effectively restricting the use of the object to users, groups, machines or times of day.

Novera's Epic also uses a directory based on the Internet's LDAP standard so that users are authenticated through a common directory service.

Although Novera adds the CORBA items to objects and has an associated graphical tool for creating database access objects, it does not have a "painter," or a tool for creating a graphical user interface for the user.

That is not an issue for Anderson, however, who said he is busy looking at many Java tools, among them Borland's JBuilder and IBM's VisualAge for Java, for creating these user environments.

One place Anderson is not ready to go is object-to-object communication with his suppliers and trading partners. "Will I let their purchase order objects call on our inventory system objects? Not yet," he said, noting the potential security risk.

Although Home Depot has many applications to deploy, its object- oriented foundation appears to be on sound footing. "It's not that risky, it's easy and it works," said Anderson.