A Major Linen Service Provider, Route Orders Through The Azure Cloud To Expand Business And Solve Order Problems Faster

When Ben Page launched his linen and uniform rental business in 1930, business was done with a smile and a handshake. His California company, Mission Linen Supply, is still family-owned but today serves thousands of businesses across the United States. The company works hard to find modern ways to maintain the company’s intense focus on personalized customer service.

Gain control of our online destiny

Until recently, Mission stuck to Ben Page’s founding focus of renting linen and uniforms, while expanding into healthcare products and restroom supplies. Mission has grown steadily to include more than 2,500 employees working from 40 facilities in five western US states.

When the company decided to expand into direct sales of apparel products, it was presented with challenges as well as opportunities. With the rental business, Mission owned its own inventory and took orders manually—in person or over the phone—to maintain that personal touch.

However, with the move into direct sales, the company didn’t want to own inventory; it preferred to depend on third-party suppliers to fulfill orders. This new ordering process, and the expectation that the direct-sales business would boom, required moving to an e-commerce capability.

Mission partnered with an independent electronic data interchange (EDI) company to process the company’s e-commerce orders and send the orders to the appropriate supplier for fulfillment. However, problems arose.

“We were at the mercy of the EDI supplier for getting new suppliers set up, which could take months,” says Dave Pattison, Director of IT at Mission Linen Supply. “We had minimal insight into the order process, so we couldn’t fix problems quickly, which affected customer service. In short, we found ourselves very dependent on another company for order fulfilment in a fast-growing area of our business. We wanted more control over our own destiny.”

Move application integration to the cloud

Mission has a small IT staff and a cloud focus where technology is concerned. “We want to get out of the server business,” Pattison says. “We want our staff focused on activities that support our core business, not applying security updates.”

The company had set up its e-commerce capability in Microsoft Azure and moved many Microsoft SQL Server databases and web workloads into the Microsoft cloud as well. Mission had heard about Azure Logic Apps, an application integration service, and thought it would be ideal for managing the company’s order workflow in Azure.

Azure Logic Apps simplifies the process of setting up scalable integrations and workflows in the cloud. It provides a visual designer for creating workflows, includes many connectors to popular cloud applications (such as Salesforce.com, Microsoft Office 365, Dropbox, Twitter, and Google Services), and connects with on-premises, line-of-business applications.

Mission turned to VNB Consulting Services for help in creating the solution. VNB Consulting is a tier-1 Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider and Microsoft Gold Partner, with strong expertise in building solutions on the Microsoft Integration Platform as a Service (iPaaS) offering.

In just three months, Pattison’s team and VNB created an order processing and management system in Azure. Although this system is yet to be fully rolled out, the goal is to use it to replace the third-party EDI provider, managing all direct-sales orders in the Azure cloud.

“I can’t say enough good things about the help that VNB Consulting Services provided,” says Eric Sanabia, System Developer at Mission Linen Supply. “This is cutting-edge technology, and we did not have the expertise to do it ourselves. VNB Consulting was very knowledgeable and efficient; they came through for us on a short timeline. It was amazing to me as a developer to see how they built this solution.”

The new order flow basically works like this: When an order hits the Mission website, it’s passed to the company’s on-premises SAP system. SAP sends the order to Azure Logic Apps, which determines which supplier should receive it and which EDI file format that supplier requires. Logic Apps then translates the order into the correct EDI format and sends it to the supplier, which, in turn, fulfills the order and sends a confirmation to Mission. All systems communicate through Azure Logic Apps. (For more detail, see the technical addendum.)

Grow faster, save money in the cloud

With its new cloud integration platform, Mission can add new suppliers much faster and thus expand its direct-sales business more rapidly. “Today, with our Azure Logic Apps solution, we can get suppliers onboarded within two weeks versus the two months or longer that the EDI provider required,” Pattison says. “The faster we can integrate partners, the faster we can grow our business.”

What’s more, Mission can achieve this growth without expensive IT overhead. “Hosting our online order platform in Azure relieves us of worry about servers, security updates, and other IT ‘plumbing’ issues,” says Sanabia. “If we had to host this ourselves and buy and manage servers, it wouldn’t make financial sense.”

Finally, Mission will eliminate the per-supplier onboarding fees and the per-transaction fees that the EDI provider charges. Transaction fee savings alone could add up to $5,000 a year, and Mission can pass that savings along to its customers.

Gain instant insight into order flow, improve customer service

Because Mission now owns its direct-sales order processing, it has deep insight into the health of that process and can move faster to resolve problems. “With the Azure Logic Apps solution, we have access to much more data and can use Microsoft Power BI to surface all this detail in business-friendly formats,” Sanabia says. “We are notified instantly of a problem so we can immediately address it, instead of having to open a ticket with the EDI provider and waiting for them to investigate and resolve it. This strengthens customer service.”

Order processing time is a key metric for customer satisfaction, and Mission Linen works hard to improve it. “We are aiming to trim order processing for embroidered garments from 14 days to 11 days, and this new technology will help,” Sanabia says.

Technical addendum

Before discovering Microsoft Azure Logic Apps, Mission Linen Supply had an order processing system that consisted of point-to-point integrations between the company’s e-commerce and SAP systems and a third-party EDI provider. Multiple file formats were involved, and Mission had to pay the EDI provider to provide this document translation service across the sales order process.

Azure Logic Apps, which is part of the Azure App Service, allows developers to design workflows that start from a trigger and then execute a series of steps, each invoking an App Service API app while securely taking care of authentication and best practices such as check-pointing and durable execution. It makes integrating disparate data sources, from cloud to on-premises, easy.

Mission and its integration partner VNB Consulting Services used Azure Logic Apps to create a completely decoupled integration platform in Azure. Mission business analysts use Microsoft Power BI to surface business intelligence data from the system.

In the new system, when a shopper places an order on the Mission website, the order is passed to the company’s on-premises SAP system. SAP creates a purchase order in XML format and updates the customer record with the PO number. SAP transmits the XML-format order to an FTP server, which Azure Logic Apps continuously monitors.

When Logic Apps recognizes that there’s a new order, it reads the contents of the order, marks the event in a database, and looks at the contents of the file to determine which supplier to send it to. It also determines which EDI file format that vendor requires and translates the order into that format.

Log messages from Azure Logic Apps are sent to Azure Service Bus and then to Azure Stream Analytics and Power BI for analysis. All events are noted in Azure Event Hub, which Power BI also uses for reporting. Purchase orders are stored as XML files in Azure File Storage and added to Azure SQL Database.

“The beauty of this solution is that we have one order format that is sent to our Logic Apps solution,” says Sanabia. “Logic Apps takes care of converting the XML format into the format each vendor requires.”