Data Operations in Supply Chain

June 17, 2019 ยท 5 minutes read

warehouse shelves chuttersnap/unsplash

retail inventory lifecycle

In a retail supply chain, eventual consistency is unavoidable. Products follow a lifecycle of inventory, often intersecting with a lifecycle in the Order Management System (OMS). If I operate a shoe store, I may have items that are on the sales floor and additional stock in the backroom. These states cover the same products but at different points in the lifecycle. During a restock, backroom products will move onto the sales floor.

When an item is sold, it is effectually leaving the inventory of the store, but even that transaction has its own lifecycle. When a customer is trying on a pair of shoes, they are learning about that product. They may carry the shoes through the store, as they consider purchasing it, which like reserving it or adding it to a cart online. The product naturally transitions between various states of inventory. In a digital space, the same model is followed as a user browses and interacts with the product page and the checkout flow.

state management

An overwhelming amount of logistics IT depends on visibility into the states of items. A decent system should understand not only where an item is and what lifecycle stage it holds, but it should also log previous stages in the history of the item. In this respect, I learned a lot from event sourcing. A simple tool for understanding event sourcing is to imagine data as if it was managed with git version control. If I recorded each time an item's lifecycle updated as a directed acyclic graph (DAG), I could compute the state of that item at any given time by applying those changes in-order.

dag diagram Professor/

The impetus for this is clear in the case of a lost order. Storing all the information about an item that should have been shipped in a DAG, like a timeline, offers a powerful tool for resolving conflicts and mitigating repeated issues. If the item was lost in transit, then a tracking number will help me find it. That's because a tracking number is essentially backed by a DAG of locations where the package was scanned, connected by the timestamps of each scan.

eventual consistency

I won't try to explain all the calculus of eventual consistency. Simply think about the edges between nodes in a DAG. Between the touch-points in the product's lifecycle, its state in the inventory system does not change. The truth is that there is a natural delay between the time a package's physical state or location changes and the time at which digital systems become aware of changes. The reality I see when looking into an inventory database is an echo of what has happened. It constructs an estimation of where all my items are and which states they inhabit.

Under pressure to design highly-available applications, I face challenges in reconciling with eventually consistent data. When an inventory system is wrong, it can ruin the user experience. Rapidly changing, near real-time data pipelines become a burden, especially in staging data from an event sourced system into an efficient read model. I need a design pattern for our systems to enhance the consistency without compromising on availability.

command query responsibility segregation

CQRS is a pattern for separating the read-behavior of an app from the write-behavior. Super simple data services may have CRUD actions exposed in a REST API. I can tell the application to create, update, and destroy persistent records. This is the command layer or the write-path. Reading records is the query layer, which specifies the rules for retrieving data. The CQRS parity for my CRUD app could involve deploying a query service, for read-operations and a separate command service for pushing updates. This pattern would offer advantages in scaling elastically. The query service could scale up during peak browsing traffic while the command service scales during checkouts.

However, my position is that the most compelling use of CQRS in supply chain IT is across the data pipeline. Consider the concept of a write-path where all incoming changes are posted in a commit log. The system will maintain a fixed period of the events for each product in the commit log. Following a common event sourcing fixture, the pipeline would create projections from the event log. The projection is the result of applying all the changes up to a point in time. A projection of the current state represents the read model. To offer high availability, the system loads the read model into a distributed, NoSQL database and leverages complex events processing architecture to re-hydrate the state in near real-time.

the future of supply chain data

In a CQRS data pipeline, any new data is logged and stored as it enters the system. This creates a resilient system of record that can be used to reconstruct the state of inventory at any point in time. The read model stays available and is updated with deterministic stream processing. You will never go to the write-path to query the state of an item, and you will never abuse the read-path to push an update. Each domain is distinct in its responsibilities. Another great feature would be adding elastic scaling to the event processing so that the consistency becomes tunable and tolerant to high load scenarios.

A retail supply chain is an expansive, imperfect, and often asymmetric system. Handling the flux of data in order to provide useful selling experiences for members challenges even the best software architecture and infrastructure at scale. Interacting with data against a static model in a few dozen tables isn't good enough anymore. In order to grow in our capabilities to forecast and represent the resources of a company, consider capturing the changes of state in motion as a stream within the supply chain. With the advent Amazon Go or Kroger's partnership with Microsoft AI, I have begun to see a path towards using computer vision to get a high fidelity record of state across the supply chain. Such efforts would be doomed without first designing a data pipeline for consistency in motion and availability at rest.