Ocado Retail: APIs for speedy delivery
While Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) have long existed in the software developer’s armoury as an integration tool, they’re fast becoming a means for businesses to quickly access valuable data sets and create software-powered products and services that can be accessed by a host of business partners and stakeholders.
One oft-cited application of the tech is the travel industry’s use of flight APIs which allow travel agents and online booking sites to integrate all flight-related content from multiple suppliers to provide customers with best curated flight deals and competitive airfares.
Increasingly, other sectors are using APIs for integration and data access purposes – and retail is no exception. Ocado Retail has been using APIs as part of an ongoing IT transformation project.
The online retailer, a three-year-old joint venture between two big groups – Marks & Spencer Group and Ocado – is responsible for Ocado.com as well as its fast-growing same day delivery service Ocado Zoom.
The fledging retailer harbours ambitions to become the biggest online grocer in the UK and to achieve this it is reliant on swift access to customer data and analytics.
For Ocado Retail, this business intelligence data comes from the Ocado Group’s third-party retail platform, the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) – an ecommerce, customer fulfilment and logistics portal, currently used by eleven retailers across nine countries.
Manoj Solanki, an integration architect for Ocado Retail explains: “The OSP gives us a lot of useful information about customers, buying habits, details about their orders, basket sizes and frequencies of orders, what they want to buy, the products that they’re interested in and so forth, and it enables us to make intelligent decisions about the kind of products customers may want to buy in the future.”
Not only is timely access to the right customer and product data important, it’s also vital for the retailer to have access to regulatory information – particularly relating to new UK government rules around the promotion of high fat and sugar foods (HFSS regulation) which is to come into force next year, Solanki adds.
Because the retailer is dealing with a lot of data, which involves significant back and forth with many different stakeholders, its biggest challenge – and one many tech leaders will be familiar with – is how to access the right data for the right stakeholder at the right time.
For Solanki, this is primarily achieved through API creation – using APIs to process and provide selected bits of data – whether that be for products, customer behaviour or deliveries – to the relevant parties.
“Information needs to be accessible to multiple internal and external stakeholders who all need access to the data for different purposes,” he explains.
“We have to ensure that we’ve got APIs that will enable the transfer of data between systems, and we need these to be efficient and secure,” he adds.
Comply with me
According to Solanki in the case of the compliance data required by GDPR and HFSS rules, in some cases they can provide an API that will allow a third party to send data directly to the retailer.
To design, develop and manage its APIs Ocado Retail is using MuleSoft’s Anypoint integration platform.
“It’s a portal from which we can administer our apps or our APIs and figure out what resources we should allocate to each API and what security policies we should give them as well as designing what we want the API to do,” says Solanki.
Solanki adds that the retailer is also taking advantage of a feature within Anypoint called MuleSoft Exchange that works a bit like an app store, which enables the creator to make APIs available for third party use, where appropriate.
Solanki says that the vision is to create a core library of reusable APIs across the domains that are important for products, for customers and for suppliers.
“The aim is for these reusable self-serviceable APIs to be available to serve many different businesses needs outside of central IT (both internally and externally) via the Anypoint platform,” he says.
This corporate “Lego brick” approach enables enterprises to assemble and reassemble APIs at pace and at scale, and to compose new applications at a much faster pace.
Solanki adds that part of his role is to make sure this approach is possible, by liaising closely with other architects and developers to ensure that the designs they do for any new solutions take this long term ‘building block’ strategy into account.
“There’s definitely an optimal way of creating an API. You could design an API that meets the requirements for now, but it doesn’t necessarily allow you to add more in there in the future,” he says.
“There are also several ways to create an integration solution – so you want to create what’s most appropriate and useful for your business.
“For instance, when I’m speaking with other architects and developers – if we’re creating a solution based around products – then you need to create your base APIs in one place so that when something else comes along that’s similar you can use those same APIs to then put similar functionality in it. It’s trying to be a bit domain based in that sense,” he says.
He adds that communication between the tech leads, and the key business stakeholders is also crucial “so that everybody understands what the expectation is, what the solution is and what the API’s will offer.”
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