Headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario, Unisync Group Limited is a full service, vertically integrated provider of uniforms, workwear, image apparel and related solutions. With distribution centers in Western and Central Canada, Unisync Group serves many corporate clients and services 30,000+ ship-to locations in North America and numerous locations worldwide.

When presented with an opportunity by Purolator, Canada’s top integrated freight and parcel solution provider, to build an online uniform ordering website for their English and French speaking employees across the country, Unisync and its online solutions partner Uniform Market had an immediate challenge on their hands – how to build a multilingual e-commerce site quickly and cost effectively.

Technical Challenges

As technology prime and VP of Professional Services, Al Baker of Uniform Market is a veteran of web based software development and is no stranger to the technical challenges when it comes to developing web based software platforms capable of supporting multiple languages.

The software component providing the ability to support more than one language happens to be one of those components which, in order to provide such a basic capability to all applications within the system, must reside in what is commonly referred to in software design speak as the base layer. As its name implies, the base layer resides in, of course, the software base. All application software is built on top of this base layer. Changing functionality of this layer is highly disruptive and often results in existing functionality breaking outright or otherwise behaving in unexpected ways, and can potentially affect all applications within the system. Even if the coding changes are done properly, the amount of back testing required to make sure existing functionality did not break is often extremely time consuming and taxing to the technical resources.

In other words, when it comes to the base layer, build it right the first time. Or, second best, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So unless one has the foresight of building multilingual support into their design right from the start, which, by the way, would add a non-trivial amount of time, effort and cost to a project, adding multilingual functionality to existing software after the fact is not unlike trying to re-arrange the base support columns of a building after five stories have been erected.

Having a legacy software product which was originally built with only English in mind, little wonder why the mere uttering of the phrase “base software re-write” by his development team would make Al, or any other seasoned software development manager for that matter, cringe.

Coupled with the fact that the client wanted their product very quickly and inexpensively – pretty much standard customer requirements these days – all of a sudden Al has a pretty challenging problem on his hands.

Decision factors

After learning about the Web Lite proxy-based website translation software solution and having downloaded a copy of its SWeTE open source reverse proxy translation software to a local server to ‘kick the tires’, Al had a pretty good idea what the Web Lite software was capable of and could visualize how it could be integrated into his own software product to provide a seamless offering of functionality in English and French.

Choosing between building everything in-house or integrating with a third party software component often involves risk-reward tradeoffs amongst numerous pros and cons. In this case of integrating a third party component from Web Lite, the calculus going through Al’s mind is little different from those in the heads of many technical primes faced with similar buy-or-build dilemmas.

On the plus side of the equation, one had:

  • SWeTE, the Web Lite reverse proxy technical approach was innovative and the software seemed capable, as his quick ‘under the hood’ inspection seemed to conclude.
  • Integrating with SWeTE would be significantly faster than re-writing his base software to support multiple languages, assuming that the integration was successful.
  • More importantly, the decoupled nature of two software systems would allow the English and French versions to be developed independently and in parallel while avoiding costly cross disruptions to each other. This was hugely important and valuable since time to market was a critical successful factor. Re-writing his base software would not offer him that time luxury.

On the minus side of the equation, working with someone with no prior working relationship presented its own challenges:

  • Is their software as good as what it says in the glossy brochures?
  • How easy is it to integrate the two software systems?
  • Would my team end up forever having to put barnacles in my software just to work around their software bugs?
  • Is their tech team competent and able to work with my team?
  • Is their tech team responsive to the requests and issues my team raise?
  •  Is their administrative backend user friendly enough for my translators?

After careful evaluation of the pros and cons and convincing the rest of the management teams of his thought process – rest assured there were skeptics amongst the executive teams within Unisync and Uniform Market, Al decided to engage Web Lite for the integrated solution.

Implementation & outcome

A sandbox demo system based on the actual English server content under development was quickly created to demonstrate the capability of the Web Lite proxy-based translation server software working as an adjunct to the English server. And several technical discussions later involving the two technical teams and Unisync’s in-house translation team, the teams decided to formally go ahead with the project.

Once started, the two teams contributed to the project as planned – independently in parallel and decoupled.

While the Uniform Market team was coding new functionality to the English server, the Web Lite team added the dynamic translation logic required to handle product queries and order processing typical of e-commerce transactions. Both activities were done independently of each other. Close interaction between the design teams ensured that questions and issues raised were quickly discussed and solutions promptly agreed upon and implemented.

After training was provided, translation of existing and new incremental functionality into French was done independently by Unisync’s in-house team as content was captured from the English side and imported into the translation memory.

As new functionality got developed and became available on the Unisync server, the content was pulled in to the French proxy web server and translated. In other words, any new functionality becoming available on the English side would almost immediately become available also on the French side.

The time it took to implement the French functionality? Depending on how one counts, the total elapsed time to have the French server fully functional,  i.e., logic plus translation, was about four to six weeks.

Unisync was able to roll out the e-commerce website in both English and French practically as soon as its English version was complete.

Same solution, next clients… the rewards

Armed with the experience acquired from developing the e-commerce website for Purolator, Unisync and Uniform Market are confident with the technical approach of using the SWeTE reverse proxy technology in providing multilingual solutions to their clients.

Subsequently, when they had another opportunity to provide a multilingual e-commerce solution to Home Hardware, one of Canada’s largest home improvement, construction materials and furniture retail chain, the decision to choose the same approach was relatively straight forward.

Thanks to the large amount of software re-use possible from the Purolator project, Unisync was able to create an internal e-commerce website, available in English and French, for Home Hardware’s franchise members to order their uniforms. Unisync was able to develop the software and roll out the service in an even shorter amount of time than the first Purolator project, and do so with practically no Web Lite involvement.

Unisync and Uniform Market are now rolling out similar solutions to their other Fortune 500 clients. Sweet (or rather…. SWeTE).

Lessons Learned

Ironically, a perfectly implemented project often makes it look too easy and leads one to downplay such critical contributing factors as sound analyses and educated risk taking followed by perfect execution which made such success possible in the first place.

In the case of the Purolator project, the critical elements of success bear repeating even though they sound oh so like common sense.

  • Choosing a right third party system could significantly cut down development time and cost and allows one to leverage one’s existing software base.
  • Decouple wherever possible to minimize cross disruptions. Remember, the complexity of a system increases exponentially with the number of interacting moving parts.
  • Open communication channels between the teams involved are critical in order for questions and issues raised to get quickly clarified and resolved.

Like a quarterback who threw that cleverly thought out and perfectly executed game winning pass, the entire play, in slow motion or in real time, will remain a joy for the practitioner to re-live over and again, long after the game was over. As for a technical decision maker, having made the right informed risk call based on thorough due diligence and a rational decision making process, to be followed by a near flawless execution, is no less thrilling and deserving as a case study of how to make business decisions when technology is involved.

“We had never needed our web sites to be translated to French. When the requirement arose, we feared a massively expensive solution or a quick solution with many problems, including slow execution and bad translations. Instead we found SWeTE from Web Lite. This extremely professional organization provided us a quick solution with fast execution speeds and human translation. What could have been a nightmare ended up being a pleasure. I highly recommend this company to anyone with the need to translate a web site or many web sites into any language. At worst, if they don’t have people who can translate into your target language, they can help you find them. Their tool does the rest!” — Al Baker, Projects Senior Manager