PIAB Turns to IBM Cast Iron Systems for Fast ERP Integration: Integrate in Days, ROI in Nine Months

We certainly didn’t have months to get this done. We had to get it up and running within about 30 to 45 days.
– Greg Anderson, Global IT Manager, PIAB

ERP Systems Do Not Talk

When the Swedish company PIAB decided to implement a global just-in-time inventory model, it had to find a way to integrate its various ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems which were unable to communicate with each other. “We have offices in about 18 different countries, and each of them have individual ERP systems,” said Greg Anderson, Global IT Manager for PIAB. “The biggest issue we had is the amount of double-entry that was required once an order was placed. In the UK, for instance, there was a lot of manual work being done to process an order through the local ERP system and into our main system in Sweden, and also to transfer the information back.” The new model required a more efficient approach to order processing.

Based in Taby, Sweden, PIAB provides industrial vacuum solutions for material handling and factory automation. It serves a variety of industries including food and consumer products, automotive and electronics.

The purpose of the just-in-time inventory model was to streamline PIAB’s supply chain, reduce costs and improve customer service. “We were changing our warehouse model to go from smaller supply at local offices to centralized supply and faster delivery to the customer. So instead of having large bulk orders, we were changing to smaller, direct-ship customer orders,” said Anderson. To handle this larger volume of orders, PIAB needed to automate its order processing more fully.

The different ERP systems in its country offices were the result of organic growth and development. As the company grew and opened offices in new geographies, the local teams put in place business systems to meet their local requirements. Over time this led to a patchwork of ERP systems, many of which could not communicate with each other or with headquarters.

When the directive came down from the company’s board to integrate the ERP systems, the IT department was immediately under time pressure to complete the project. “We certainly didn’t have months to get this done. We had to get it up and running within about 30 to 45 days,” he said.

IBM WebSphere Cast Iron Cloud Integration

PIAB evaluated multiple integration technologies and vendors before choosing IBM WebSphere Cast Iron Cloud integration. It considered EDI (electronic data interchange), but found these solutions were relatively difficult and costly to implement for its environment. Other technologies tended to specialize in a single application or process, such as a technology that integrated very well with Salesforce CRM, but lacked open and flexible connections in other areas. “Cast Iron seemed to have the most connectors. They advertise quite well on their website to show how open the connectivity is. And the biggest thing is, we were under a deadline to put this system in place. Cast Iron had the tagline of ‘integrate in days,’ which was basically how much time I had,” said Anderson.

For the initial phase of the project, PIAB integrated its ERP systems in the UK and France with its headquarters in Sweden. It used an IBM Cast Iron Physical Appliance that performs the translation between the systems. “It is a complicated process that we have – checking stock, classifying orders as to whether they need further handling, how people are notified about what to do, whether an order is valid in a particular location. The appliance handles quite a bit of logic,” said Anderson. “We brought in a technical consultant from Cast Iron to work with us here. We wrote the integration project in about two weeks. There was a little delay when one of the local developers was writing the web services interface at the end point level. But everything went really well. The surprising part was how well it worked and how well it has run since then, considering how fast we had to implement it.”

ROI in Nine Months

Anderson is pleased with the outcome: “We saw a nine-month ROI on this particular project.” Cost savings came from fewer hours spent entering data, less inventory in the supply chain and reduced local warehousing and office space. Customers benefit from faster delivery. The speed of implementation was especially important in this case. “It could easily have taken nine months to a year to try to program something internally, which would have slowed down our process of adopting this model.”

“I’m confident of how reliable Cast Iron is. I don’t have to worry about it failing, which is good because I don’t want to get a call at three in the morning, waking me up in the middle of the night because things are not working in Europe.”

Since the initial project, PIAB has rolled out additional integrations with WebSphere Cast Iron Cloud integration, such as connecting Salesforce CRM with the ERP system for its office in Germany. Now sales personnel can see all of a customer’s history and detail within a single tool. These follow-on projects have an even faster ROI because the integration appliance is already in place and PIAB has gained skills in creating integrations using Cast Iron.

“So we have continued to see benefit from Cast Iron, even more than our ERP systems. I’m really happy with the choice we made,” said Anderson.

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 Copyright © 2011 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Grigg Brothers Turns to VOIP Service from ATC to Reduce Phone Costs and Improve Communication

I wanted to simplify the sheer number of points of contact and make it easier to communicate.
– Jared Grigg, Director of Communication and Information, Grigg Brothers

Toward a Streamlined Phone System

Grigg Brothers wanted to streamline and consolidate its corporate phone system. Its existing system was an assortment of phone lines and services for its headquarters and operational office in southern Idaho and seven branch offices around the U.S. Each office in Idaho supported several employees. Most of the branch offices where field technical reps were based had two phone lines – one for voice and another for fax – plus an Internet connection and mobile phone. “Communications and technology can be a big line item on the budget,” said Jared Grigg, Director of Communication and Information. “The reps were turning in expense reports with fax numbers and landlines and mobile lines, and I said, this is too much. This can be considerably more condensed. I wanted to simplify the sheer number of points of contact and make it easier to communicate.”

Grigg Brothers is a manufacturer and wholesaler of specialty fertilizers for the turf grass industry, including golf courses and sports fields. The company’s flagship products are liquid foliar fertilizers that are absorbed through the leaf tissue of a plant instead of through the roots. Nutrients applied in this way are almost fully absorbed, even during stressful times like summer heat, and create healthier turf. Grigg Brothers’ foliar fertilizers are also more environmentally friendly because they avoid toxic soil buildup, leaching and runoff.

In 2005, when Jared Grigg first started considering options for a new phone system, the owners of the company expressed skepticism about voice over IP (VOIP). They wondered whether it was mature and robust enough to support a business. Because of this and his prior experience managing a Nortel Meridian phone system, Grigg decided to focus more intently on traditional key telephone systems. He dialogued extensively with a local reseller, received several proposals and even proposed a system to the board of directors. The system offered greater flexibility and better features, but ultimately the directors turned it down because the cost was higher than what they were already paying and exceeded the technology budget.

Meanwhile VOIP technology was improving and gaining acceptance in the market. “I decided to look at the cloud again because more and more solutions were becoming available,” he said.

His first step was to deploy an Internet fax service. This service automatically converted incoming faxes to PDF format and sent them by email to the recipients. Everyone in the company received a new fax number. Technical reps who spent much of their time traveling could receive faxes immediately on their PC instead of waiting until they came back to the office. Outgoing faxes could be scanned in to a PC and emailed to the fax service for delivery. The electronic fax service cost considerably less than the dedicated fax lines it replaced.

A Serendipitous Opportunity

In 2007, ATC Communications, the Internet and phone service provider for Grigg Brothers headquarters, acquired a VOIP solution provider called Nextphone. Here Grigg saw an opportunity. One of his concerns with a VOIP solution was that if a problem arose, the VOIP provider might blame the Internet service provider and vice-versa, leaving the user caught in the middle. “If I went down this road, if I backed ATC with their new acquisition, then they would be responsible regardless of whether it was a phone problem or an Internet connectivity problem,” he said.

The ATC Nextphone service had the features they were looking for:

  • Hosted IP phone service that all offices around the U.S. could access over an Internet connection
  • Programmable “find me, follow me” feature for incoming calls that can, for instance, simultaneously ring a desk phone and cell phone, or one then the other, before going to voice mail
  • Four-digit dial connecting everyone in their geographically distributed organization as if they were in the same building
  • Internet fax service with solid features and technical support
  • Unified messaging that sends voice mails and faxes to a user’s email inbox
  • Conferencing capabilities so Grigg Brothers can set up and control its own conference calls
  • Web portal for centralized programming and administration
  • Automatic call routing to cell phones in case of local power outage
  • Significantly lower cost than their existing phone system

This set of capabilities combined with Grigg Brothers’ established relationship with ATC made it attractive. “It was the perfect solution,” said Grigg. The company deployed Nextphone across all its locations. Branch offices received Linksys PAP2T Internet Phone Adapters. To access the new phone service, they only needed to connect the adapter to the Internet and plug in any standard telephone handset. If a technical rep preferred to rely exclusively on a cell phone, the system could be programmed to route all incoming calls there. The company also standardized on Google Apps Premier, so users can access email, voice mail and faxes anywhere using a Web browser.

Headquarters initially experienced intermittent call quality problems, much to Grigg’s chagrin, though his strategy of using the same VOIP and Internet service provider proved advantageous. Grigg was concerned that VOIP would get a black eye because the owners were already apprehensive. But he believed the hosted service was solid and worked with ATC to address the underlying network quality issue. While on the verge of deploying a second DSL at headquarters and a dedicated switch for the phone system, ATC offered to try boosting the bandwidth of the existing Internet connection. “It automatically improved. I have not had a single problem since the day they did that,” he said.

In my twenty plus years of doing this, I have never been more synchronized across all platforms.”
– Jared Grigg

Less Costly and Easier to Support

As a result of switching to VOIP, overall communication costs fell by more than 40% in the first 12 months and have remained level. At the same time, the company streamlined the number of phone lines and points of contact and improved its ability to communicate and collaborate.

Grigg is also pleased that he spends much less time supporting this new phone system. He uses the Nextphone web portal to handle routine administration and support requests. In fact, the company’s entire IT infrastructure is set up for centralized, remote administration. “In my office I have several computers and monitors in a semicircle around me, and I am remotely connected to every single asset in the company – all desktop computers, all laptops and even some cell phones as we move to smarter phones. In my twenty plus years of doing this, I have never been more synchronized across all platforms,” he said.

Soft Phones for International Roaming

More recently the company started using soft phones for placing calls when outside the U.S. to expensive international roaming charges. Soft phone software runs on PCs and smart phones such as iPhone and Android. It lets users place phone calls through that device over the Internet as if they were at their office desk. It is another way Grigg Brothers is using VOIP to keep down communication costs.

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 Copyright © 2011 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Northwest Nazarene University Makes Smarter Decisions With Evisions Argos

If you have all this data, you have to mine it. You have to be able to make decisions from it.
– Eric Kellerer, Executive Director of IT, Northwest Nazarene University

Data Mining for Better Decision Making

The greatest value of a consolidated ERP system, according to Eric Kellerer, Executive Director of Information Technology at Northwest Nazarene University, is actively using that information to improve the organization. “It is so important. If you have all this data, you have to mine it. You have to be able to make decisions from it – daily decisions and strategic decisions,” he said.

Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) is a Christian liberal arts university located in Nampa, Idaho, and with satellite campuses in Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls. NNU offers 45 undergraduate majors, 11 graduate programs and numerous continuing education credits. Its enrollment includes about 2,000 graduate and undergraduate students as well as between 8,000 and 9,000 continuing education students who take classes to maintain professional certifications in education, social work, counseling and other professions.

Ten years ago, NNU consolidated all of its campus databases into a single ERP system from Jenzabar. The new system provided a centralized view and “single version of the truth” for admissions/recruiting, registration, finance, alumni relations and donor relations. For reporting and data analysis, they used a business intelligence software package from Cognos. Recently they reached a point where the Cognos software needed to be upgraded to a new version. It was going to be an expensive and time-consuming conversion, so the university decided to step back and consider other options.

Switch to Evisions

It was at this point they discovered Evisions Argos, a web-based enterprise reporting solution, and Evisions FormFusion, a solution for document enhancement and delivery. “Evisions literally installed on our whole campus in a little over an hour. They told me it would be simple, and I didn’t believe it until I saw it. We have been slowly moving our reports over to that platform. It has gone really well,” said Kellerer.

The Argos report writing and data analysis software is specifically designed for institutions of higher education. Users access it over a secure web interface, so there is no need to install it on individual PCs. The software supports any number of database types and connections. Argos features include dashboards for graphically displaying information trends and summaries, automated report scheduling and delivery, and OLAP (online analytical processing) cubes for analyzing data in multiple (3+) dimensions to spot trends and relationships.

True Collaboration

After NNU installed the software, Evisions offered to send consultants to visit the campus and help Kellerer and his staff get up and running with the software. “My first response was, how much is that going to cost? These kinds of consultants don’t come cheap!” But Evisions partnered with NNU to make sure cost was not an issue. Three of their consultants spent a few days at the university creating reports and helping IT staff learn how to use the software.

I can think of only two companies in my twelve years as IT director that actually have acted like a partner, and Evisions is one of them.
– Eric Kellerer

After completing the reports, the consultants uploaded them to the Evisions Co-op User Community. This is a common repository for report sharing that all Evisions customers can access and utilize. “If I need to build a sophisticated report on alumni relations, before I go to all the trouble, I look and see if some other university has already built it. We all have permission to go to this Co-op, download it and use it as we wish,” said Kellerer.

“The whole idea of collaborating together is important in universities, but there aren’t many companies that make it easy to do. I can think of only two companies in my twelve years as IT director that actually have acted like a partner, and Evisions is one of them. I think their concept is, if they can make us successful, if they can get us excited about the product and using it as it should be used, then we are going to upload to this Co-op and all their customers are going to be happier.”

Keen Insight

NNU leverages other features of the Argos software. They use report scheduling and delivery to help keep budget officers on track while reducing work for the IT department. IT staff no longer have to periodically generate budget reports and mail them to the other departments, since Argos does this automatically each week.

Users can analyze data themselves with graphical interfaces and drag-and-drop data manipulation. Argos is able to create data packs, or subsets of the ERP database with all data relationships intact, for individual users. Therefore users can access information pertinent to their jobs, sort and filter data and run reports as they wish.

In particular, OLAP cubes have proven to be a power analytical tool for the university. “It allows you to view three-dimensional data from many different perspectives until you begin to see patterns that you can make better decisions from,” said Kellerer. For instance, NNU looked closely at donor demographics and the effectiveness of various types of fundraising events. They were able to discern which event types were most effective in each geographical area. Now they focus fundraising efforts on the events in which donors are most interested and those that yield the greatest return.

In another example, NNU analyzed five years worth of scholarship data to predict scholarship acceptance rates based on factors like the amount of money offered and academic major. “We know if we give someone eleven thousand dollars a semester, the likelihood of them coming to NNU is extremely high because it is a full-ride scholarship. On the other hand, if we give a person one thousand dollars, we can know that a certain percentage of people are not going to come. That allows us to offer a certain percent over what we have because we know who will come and who will not, at least by percentage. And then it allows to start helping people earlier and not waiting until the last minute when someone cancels,” he said.

Streamlined Processes

Argos and FormFusion have helped streamline other university processes as well. Printing transcripts used to be a time-consuming and fairly costly job because it required careful programming and the paper had to be pre-printed with watermarks and then run through again to print data for each student. With Argos in conjunction with FormFusion, they now use standard reports that deliver a more professional look and include watermarks in a single printing.

The software has simplified the process for keeping track of communication and correspondence with students. When sending out letters where a response is expected, a special code has to be entered into the ERP database. Argos allows users to run a query, print letters and update the database in a single keystroke.

More to Come

Remarkably NNU has implemented these improvements in only four months since installing Argos and FormFusion. It makes one wonder what they will be able to do over the next four years.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

WTS Sets Itself Apart with Business Continuity Services

You can actually resume the business knowing that the data is accurate and it is functional the way it was prior to the event.
– Richard Dolewski, CTO and VP of Business Continuity Services, WTS

A Service Apart

How does a managed services provider set itself apart? For WTS, which has data centers in Seattle, WA, and Denver, CO, the answer is providing its clients a special competency in disaster recovery and business continuity. “WTS does the recovery on behalf of their customers, therefore relieving the customers of this burden, especially at a time when their staff may not be available,” said Richard Dolewski, Chief Technology Officer and VP of Business Continuity Services. “WTS delivers a repeatable recovery result every time. We value the cost of any business outage and utilize High Availability software to further eliminate planned outages.”

WTS is a managed services provider that emphasizes application hosting for Oracle JD Edwards software, though it provides other services such as disaster recovery and colocation services for iSeries (also known as IBM i, System i or AS/400), Windows and Linux platforms.

Dolewski continued, “A well planned deployment of infrastructure technology with clearly defined availability and recovery objectives can help ensure hardware failures and more serious disasters do not bring a business to its knees. A truly highly available infrastructure can be a revenue engine for our customers by always keeping the systems available to support their business requirements.”

“So we are shifting from traditional HA – which is passive, it’s after a bad event – to business continuity, which means keeping systems always available for our clients. With the clients that we service, it is all about eliminating their planned and unplanned outages. Now they see a value. They’re actually saying, wow, my systems are available so much more.”

Tape Is Not Enough

Prior to employing solutions from WTS, many clients used only tape backup systems to protect their data. When a disaster or system failure occurred, it typically took 24 or 48 hours to find the tapes, load data and restart the system. The data on the restored system was already a day behind because the last backup ran the night before. Therefore a tape-only approach meant a day or two of downtime plus losing a day’s worth of transactions and file updates. For many businesses, such recovery times and recovery points are no longer acceptable.

In one example, a transportation company with four or five distribution centers suffered an outage and had to recover from tape. The information in the recovered system was a day out of date and no longer represented the inventory status in their distribution network. So they did not know if a product had been shipped or billed and were forced to do an inventory recount. It was enough for them to realize tape is not enough.

A View to a Recovery

WTS uses proven, off-the-shelf replication technologies and a good high availability monitoring system to deliver recovery times of an hour or less and a recovery point of the last successful transaction. In the event of a disaster the actual recovery is performed by WTS staff. “We provide application recovery, which is business continuity. We have unbelievable JD Edwards staff here as well as engineers on the different platforms, so the application will be functional. If you have a disaster, you are in a crisis. Turning over a system that is, shall we say, less than credible, you have a second disaster waiting for you. So you want this to be application ready. You can actually resume the business knowing that the data is accurate and it is functional the way it was prior to the event,” he said.

WTS employs replication technologies from Vision Solutions, which includes the recent acquisition of Double-Take Software. Before deploying a technology in its data centers, WTS goes through a detailed proof of concept to make sure it meets all technical criteria. It selected iTERA and Mimix for iSeries platforms and Double-Take for Windows and Linux platforms. It considers them best-of-breed host-based solutions for replicating data in real time to a remote site, whether between WTS data centers or from client sites to WTS if they just need a recovery site. They support multiple operating systems in physical and virtual server environments.

Looking forward, WTS will continue to evolve its disaster recovery services. As a managed services provider, it views these stringent, application-level DR capabilities as a differentiator. “It is all about being prepared. Our job is to be prepared for the client,” said Dolewski.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

It was a major win for the IT group in real­izing how we could help the company reduce cost while earning more respect from upper management.
– Rob Weis, CIO, North Wind

Interview with North Wind

Rob Weis, CIO of North Wind, discussed his company’s experience developing a portal and collaboration tool using Drupal with AIT Profiles.

Drupal is an open source content management platform. It offers a free software package for publishing, managing and organizing a wide variety of content on a website.

North Wind, an Alaska Native Corporation based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, provides environmental, engineering and construction services to governmental, commercial and industrial clients.

—————————————–

AIT Profiles: Let’s go back prior to the installation. Tell us about the challenge your company was facing at the time.

Rob Weis: I noticed early on that our corporate intranet was a mess. It was running on a free version of SharePoint that was outdated, unpatched and living on the DMZ. All the while, it was completely accessible to anybody on the planet if you could get past the basic NT authentication. The intranet contained sensitive data about many government projects. This became a major security concern for the company and we decided it was time to look at a full upgrade and moving this system inside our network.

AIT Profiles: And how did you go about looking for a solution?

Rob Weis: We carefully evaluated our upgrade options by evaluating several COTS (commercial off the shelf) vendors, the latest version of SharePoint Enterprise edition and the option to develop the system in-house. Our criteria for selection were based on cost, flexibility, user interface and integration with legacy systems.

AIT Profiles: What did you select?

Rob Weis: We decided to leverage our internal software engineering team’s expertise. The team and I believed there was a huge potential for major cost savings in attempting to reproduce SharePoint, function by function. The new project was now on the high priority list and was rebranded with the name “Portal.”

North Wind had previously adopted an open source content management system, called Drupal, for several scientific applications and project collaboration websites with great success. The first appeal in using Drupal for our scientific applications was the insanely rapid application development it offered. Often times we had a working prototype for our customer by the close of business on the same day! For our new Portal intranet, we looked at this and said, “Let’s see how far we can get in 24 work hours of development before we commit fully.” After about 24 hours of work, it was pretty shocking that we had replicated a significant portion of SharePoint functionality. This gave us a confidence boost to move forward with Drupal. However, there was a lot of work to do in terms of higher hanging fruits and a fairly large data migration/cleanup.

AIT Profiles: Beyond cost savings, did you see other benefits to using Drupal?

Rob Weis: The other appeal I saw for the team to leverage Drupal is it would be a great way to invest in our own team to learn more about the software. It meant discovering new modules, integrating with Active Directory LDAP and other systems, building SharePoint equivalent functionality and finding solutions to a slew of other challenges. All of which, we could use in the future for our other Drupal installations for our customers without needing to charge them a dime to spin up for the knowledge.

AIT Profiles: So how did the Portal project turn out?

Rob Weis: When the Portal launched to the company and the project was completed, we estimated the labor cost of the project and believed we had broken even in labor cost compared to purchasing SharePoint Enterprise for one year of licensing. It may not sound like much, but the SharePoint software would have cost each year what it took to build the Portal once. Additionally, we now had the internal capability to say “Yes, we can add that feature,” instead of the previous answer “No, we’re not sure how to do that.”

Shortly after the launch of our newly launched “Portal,” we had a request come in from our CFO to automate our pay stub system. It was a manual printing process that was very costly. We did an analysis and the current process was costing about $80,000 over 5 years in time and materials. We added a small piece of custom functionality to the Portal user profiles that would connect to our accounting system and display pay stubs to the user. This small feature amounted to a savings of approximately $70,000 over 5 years! This alone paid for a significant chunk of the Portal development costs. It was a major win for the IT group in realizing how we could help the company reduce cost while earning more respect from upper management.  It was at about this time that the team and I recognized we had made the right technology decision. The investment was already paying itself back and we had just begun!

AIT Profiles: That’s a big savings. And how has the Portal affected your organization?

Rob Weis: With the new Portal system, we’ve had a completely new cultural experience for the company. The news is up to date, employee hires are immediately in the directory, and each division and employee has their own page with useful information for everyone. The Portal has features like: search, calendar, classifieds, reservation system (conference rooms, vehicles, GPS tools, drilling rigs, etc.), rotating graphics for seasons and special events (charity work, golf tournaments, etc.), profile self-marketing (resume, biography, etc,) and several other features to keep the content fresh and alive.  It’s hard to put a value on all these features and the cultural impact, but we’re betting that it may contribute to improved morale, less turnover, more involved and efficient employees, and better communication across the company.

AIT Profiles: Do you plan to build upon this system in the future?

Rob Weis: Our last major phase of the Portal project is currently underway. We’re on the cusp of launching a collaboration system for corporate groups and projects. We’ve been beta testing with several internal teams and have had success in using a software add-on for Drupal called Open Atrium. The collaboration pieces and the several other “wish list” enhancements to the Portal are sure to make a major impact to the company over the next several years. We’re helping our software development team grow with Drupal, our employees to be more efficient and excited about technology, improving our security and reducing costs to make our rates more competitive.

AIT Profiles: It sounds like developing the Portal with Drupal open source software has been a good experience. Do you have any final thoughts or advice for our readers?

Rob Weis: If you haven’t considered open source in the past, now’s the time to take a deeper look at what might be possible for you or your company.

AIT_Profiles_Blogocon_small

 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

North Wind Successfully Develops Portal In-house Using Drupal Open Source Software

It was a major win for the IT group in real­izing how we could help the company reduce cost while earning more respect from upper management.
– Rob Weis, CIO, North Wind

Interview with North Wind

Rob Weis, CIO of North Wind, discussed his company’s experience developing a portal and collaboration tool using Drupal with AIT Profiles.

Drupal is an open source content management platform. It offers a free software package for publishing, managing and organizing a wide variety of content on a website.

North Wind, an Alaska Native Corporation based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, provides environmental, engineering and construction services to governmental, commercial and industrial clients.

—————————————–

AIT Profiles: Let’s go back prior to the installation. Tell us about the challenge your company was facing at the time.

Rob Weis: I noticed early on that our corporate intranet was a mess. It was running on a free version of SharePoint that was outdated, unpatched and living on the DMZ. All the while, it was completely accessible to anybody on the planet if you could get past the basic NT authentication. The intranet contained sensitive data about many government projects. This became a major security concern for the company and we decided it was time to look at a full upgrade and moving this system inside our network.

AIT Profiles: And how did you go about looking for a solution?

Rob Weis: We carefully evaluated our upgrade options by evaluating several COTS (commercial off the shelf) vendors, the latest version of SharePoint Enterprise edition and the option to develop the system in-house. Our criteria for selection were based on cost, flexibility, user interface and integration with legacy systems.

AIT Profiles: What did you select?

Rob Weis: We decided to leverage our internal software engineering team’s expertise. The team and I believed there was a huge potential for major cost savings in attempting to reproduce SharePoint, function by function. The new project was now on the high priority list and was rebranded with the name “Portal.”

North Wind had previously adopted an open source content management system, called Drupal, for several scientific applications and project collaboration websites with great success. The first appeal in using Drupal for our scientific applications was the insanely rapid application development it offered. Often times we had a working prototype for our customer by the close of business on the same day! For our new Portal intranet, we looked at this and said, “Let’s see how far we can get in 24 work hours of development before we commit fully.” After about 24 hours of work, it was pretty shocking that we had replicated a significant portion of SharePoint functionality. This gave us a confidence boost to move forward with Drupal. However, there was a lot of work to do in terms of higher hanging fruits and a fairly large data migration/cleanup.

AIT Profiles: Beyond cost savings, did you see other benefits to using Drupal?

Rob Weis: The other appeal I saw for the team to leverage Drupal is it would be a great way to invest in our own team to learn more about the software. It meant discovering new modules, integrating with Active Directory LDAP and other systems, building SharePoint equivalent functionality and finding solutions to a slew of other challenges. All of which, we could use in the future for our other Drupal installations for our customers without needing to charge them a dime to spin up for the knowledge.

AIT Profiles: So how did the Portal project turn out?

Rob Weis: When the Portal launched to the company and the project was completed, we estimated the labor cost of the project and believed we had broken even in labor cost compared to purchasing SharePoint Enterprise for one year of licensing. It may not sound like much, but the SharePoint software would have cost each year what it took to build the Portal once. Additionally, we now had the internal capability to say “Yes, we can add that feature,” instead of the previous answer “No, we’re not sure how to do that.”

Shortly after the launch of our newly launched “Portal,” we had a request come in from our CFO to automate our pay stub system. It was a manual printing process that was very costly. We did an analysis and the current process was costing about $80,000 over 5 years in time and materials. We added a small piece of custom functionality to the Portal user profiles that would connect to our accounting system and display pay stubs to the user. This small feature amounted to a savings of approximately $70,000 over 5 years! This alone paid for a significant chunk of the Portal development costs. It was a major win for the IT group in realizing how we could help the company reduce cost while earning more respect from upper management.  It was at about this time that the team and I recognized we had made the right technology decision. The investment was already paying itself back and we had just begun!

AIT Profiles: That’s a big savings. And how has the Portal affected your organization?

Rob Weis: With the new Portal system, we’ve had a completely new cultural experience for the company. The news is up to date, employee hires are immediately in the directory, and each division and employee has their own page with useful information for everyone. The Portal has features like: search, calendar, classifieds, reservation system (conference rooms, vehicles, GPS tools, drilling rigs, etc.), rotating graphics for seasons and special events (charity work, golf tournaments, etc.), profile self-marketing (resume, biography, etc,) and several other features to keep the content fresh and alive.  It’s hard to put a value on all these features and the cultural impact, but we’re betting that it may contribute to improved morale, less turnover, more involved and efficient employees, and better communication across the company.

AIT Profiles: Do you plan to build upon this system in the future?

Rob Weis: Our last major phase of the Portal project is currently underway. We’re on the cusp of launching a collaboration system for corporate groups and projects. We’ve been beta testing with several internal teams and have had success in using a software add-on for Drupal called Open Atrium. The collaboration pieces and the several other “wish list” enhancements to the Portal are sure to make a major impact to the company over the next several years. We’re helping our software development team grow with Drupal, our employees to be more efficient and excited about technology, improving our security and reducing costs to make our rates more competitive.

AIT Profiles: It sounds like developing the Portal with Drupal open source software has been a good experience. Do you have any final thoughts or advice for our readers?

Rob Weis: If you haven’t considered open source in the past, now’s the time to take a deeper look at what might be possible for you or your company.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Hagadone Corporation Embraced the Cloud – Before Cloud Computing Was Cool

First and foremost, we wanted to keep our costs in line with our limited manpower.
– Bill Tunison, IT Director, Hagadone Corporation

How To Streamline a Conglomerate

Hagadone Corporation is a privately-held, diversified company based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It owns and operates newspapers from Washington State to Wisconsin, a magazine and large printing operation in Hawaii, hotels and a lakeside resort in Northern Idaho, three marinas, six restaurants as well as other businesses. Hagadone is a true conglomerate.

Ten years ago, the company looked at ways to streamline and consolidate IT applications among its diverse businesses. “First and foremost, we wanted to keep our costs in line with our limited manpower,” said Bill Tunison, IT Director of Hagadone Corporation. “Most of the properties are not large corporations in themselves, and they just could not justify sustaining an IT staff. We wanted to centralize support – so that we had proper support but did it for the least cost possible.”

“The other side of the coin was that we needed to consolidate our information. We budget and review monthly. And when the month ends, we want to be able to roll up the numbers. The best and most efficient way to do that was to have the information available to us. So we didn’t want to wait on somebody sending a fax of information and then reposting that information in the general ledgers,” he said.

Consolidate Applications in the Cloud

To address these challenges, Hagadone implemented remote application delivery over public networks, i.e. the Internet. This was long before cloud computing and software as a service were industry buzzwords. It started in the year 2000 with their financial system, which was Great Plains Software at the time and later became Microsoft Dynamics GP. The application system and databases ran in the company’s Coeur d’Alene data center, and remote users at the various businesses accessed it over wide area network links using Citrix clients. The links were configured as virtual private networks (VPN) to ensure data security and integrity.

The Citrix solution, which includes Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop, allows users to run application sessions virtually and remotely on various platforms. The application sessions run in the main data center, and the presentation is displayed on the clients. “Citrix was a far better tool than terminal services or anything else. Citrix always had clients that were more or less universal. One of the things we ran into was, in our newspapers they preferred Macs, and in our hospitality and other areas they preferred PCs. I chose not to decide what type of workstations users would have and opened it up to support both,” said Tunison.

As remote workstations, they used Windows PCs, Macs and, for a while, thin clients. Thin clients are low-cost, scaled-down computers with a display and keyboard, and are completely dependent on the network and server for application processing. As PC prices fell, the price difference between a fully-functional PC and a thin client was merely a hundred dollars. It was worth paying a little more to have local processing for activities like email and Web browsing, so thin clients were no longer advantageous.

At about the same time as the financial system, Hagadone consolidated all subscriber services for its newspapers into a common system that ran in a cloud environment. It later consolidated newspaper production activities such as classifieds and ad design. It deployed a marina management and boat sales application called Dockmaster Marine Management for its three marinas. Again, all of them ran in the main data center and were accessed remotely over a network.

“Some of the systems are handled locally by the properties, some are not. It just depends on whether there is a need for multiple properties to have access to the same system and data,” he said. When an application can serve multiple Hagadone businesses, it is consolidated in the cloud to minimize operating and infrastructure costs. When an application is unique to a business, there are no synergies to gain so it remains at the local site.

Maintain IT Headcount, Reduce Costs

Hagadone has benefitted from its early adop­tion of cloud computing strategies. It has main­tained the same headcount in its IT department over a decade – a number in the single digits – while supporting nearly thirty businesses in various industries stretching from Hawaii to California to Idaho to Wisconsin. Tunison continued, “I feel very good about it. I think it has done everything we hoped it would do. We are able to support it with a small staff. We give good customer service. And the initial objective of consolidation – getting data in and having data accessible – has all come to fruition.”

I feel very good about it. I think it has done everything we hoped it would do.
– Bill Tunison

Looking forward, Tunison said the company is pursuing virtualization of servers and desktops. It is also working on disaster recovery planning and high availability systems. These initiatives will add to the efficiency and flexibility of the IT infrastructure. Clustered servers and redundant storage have always been part of the infrastructure. Now the focus is on network redundancy and load balancing from the corporate data center across the wide area network backbone to the “last mile” connections to the individual businesses. The goal is to provide high end-to-end resiliency in a distributed cloud environment.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Northwest Nazarene University Streamlines Operations with Integrated ERP System from Jenzabar

We are just trying to become more and more efficient.
– Eric Kellerer, Executive Director of IT, Northwest Nazarene University

Drive for Efficiency

For Northwest Nazarene University, its integrated ERP system has been an important platform for driving greater efficiency and new capabilities into its organization. “We are just trying to become more and more efficient,” said Eric Kellerer, Executive Director of Information Technology at Northwest Nazarene University. “We have to be very careful that we are maximizing every single resource. Everybody’s time is very valuable. So we ask ourselves, how can we use systems like Jenzabar CX, in this case, to really streamline and automate? We are not trying to eliminate people’s jobs. We are trying to keep them from being overwhelmed by their jobs – by a pile of paper.”

Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) is a Christian liberal arts university located in Nampa, Idaho, and with satellite campuses in Boise, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls. NNU offers 45 undergraduate majors, 11 graduate programs and numerous continuing education credits. Its enrollment includes about 2,000 graduate and undergraduate students as well as between 8 and 9 thousand continuing education students who take classes to maintain professional certifications in education, social work, counseling and other professions.

From Disparate Databases to Integrated ERP System

Ten years ago, prior to the integrated ERP system, NNU had five major databases on campus: admissions/recruiting, registration, finance, alumni relations and donor relations. As students went through the process of applying to the university, taking classes, graduation and eventually working and donating, their information would end up in five different databases. Trying to keep the data current and synchronized across the databases proved to be virtually impossible.

“It is not uncommon for people to move – not to have the same address – from the time they were high school students to the time they begin donating. Well, trying to keep all of those addresses and phone numbers in synch was a nightmare. The alumni office would send out letters and find out a person had changed location, and they would change their address. But they did not have a good mechanism to tell the donor relations folks that that same person had moved. Or the registrar would find out that a person had asked for a transcript, and they wouldn’t tell the alumni or donor relations. It wasn’t because they were withholding information – it was just complicated,” said Kellerer.

The disparate databases also prevented the university from effectively analyzing and learning from the data in order to make better business decisions. It was too spread out. Recognizing it would not be able to grow and to meet the needs of students and other constituents with these homegrown databases, NNU decided to look for a more progressive IT system.

In 2000 NNU deployed Jenzabar CX, an integrated ERP (enterprise resource planning) system designed specifically for institutions of higher education. This new platform tied together all of its different databases. Now there is only one record per student or alumnus, not multiple, unsynchronized records like before.

It helps us to see if we are accomplishing the vision and the mission of the institution.
– Eric Kellerer

They chose Jenzabar CX because it was customizable to the university’s processes and procedures. The other competitive ERP systems would have required the university to conform its processes to the fixed capabilities of their software. Jenzabar CX, on the other hand, allowed for a business-centric approach. The university could control and decide on its own best practices and configure the software accordingly.

Furthermore, NNU belongs to a consortium of eight universities in the United States that are affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene. Three of them also use Jenzabar CX, which makes it easier to collaborate and share programmed businesses practices.

Today its integrated ERP system contains roughly 950 database tables that encompass 15,000 fields of information and span 10 years of university operations. “That is a lot. But because we have really good reporting systems and the ability to mine and look at that data, we can make some good business decisions from that data now. For instance, we can see the results of our recruiting efforts: We contacted this many students; this many students actually came; this many students graduated; and this is what they are doing now in their lives. Before, we were never able to do that kind of data mining and tracking. It is really quite significant for us. And it helps us to see if we are accomplishing the vision and the mission of the institution,” said Kellerer.

Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is how university describes its approach for systematically analyzing and streamlining its business processes in order to drive greater efficiency into the organization. It begins with selecting a process to analyze, such as an aspect of registration or alumni relations. They map out the process from beginning to end, including the inputs and outputs, the departments and people and systems involved, and how long it takes. Stakeholders and staff take a close look and brainstorm ways to speed up the process and make it more efficient and cost-effective. Kellerer continued, “In the end, we come back with an ideal approach and then look at the differences… We usually end up with five or six projects that will help to speed up that particular process. And we are doing that for seven or eight different processes on the campus at a time.”

“Some of the time we get together and say, ‘It is actually running pretty well.’ Sometimes we get together and say, ‘We really have a lot of work to do here.’ And if we’ll put a dime toward fixing this problem, we can save fifty cents. It does take a little effort to get you there, but once you are there, it pays off.”

Automate Contingency Deposits

In one example, they looked at the process for receiving contingency deposits which students send to secure a place at the university. When admissions received a deposit, an administrator went into the ERP system and entered a check mark for that student. Then he or she emailed two other departments to indicate the deposit was received. Each of those departments had to go into their portions of the ERP system and place a check mark to make reservations for things like classes and dormitories. It was redundant work, so they automated the software. Now when one department indicates a deposit was received, the other check marks are automatically placed.

Correcting a procedure like this might seem obvious, but they usually evolved for perfectly good reasons at the time, according to Kellerer. Sometimes it was prior to computers. As the university and its systems changed over time, the procedures became outdated. VSM is a means to identify and revise them.

Eliminate Paper for Continuing Education Classes

Another VSM project addresses the administration of continuing education classes. NNU handles 17,000 registrations for continuing education credits every year. Class attendees are professionals like teachers or social workers who need to stay current and maintain their certifications by taking a class or two during the summer. Many of the professors who teach continuing education are not full-time professors on campus. Rather, they are outside experts enlisted to teach special classes, and may only do one per year.

If we’ll put a dime toward fixing this problem, we can save fifty cents. It does take a little effort to get you there, but once you are there, it pays off.
– Eric Kellerer

These continuing education professors were not able to use NNU’s online system for class administration, and everything was done on paper through the mail. Class lists were sent by mail, and since the law requires professors to have a current class list, the university had to mail a revised list whenever there was an add or drop. Final grade sheets were also sent by mail. If a student disputed a grade, the university would have to send the professor another sheet to fill out and return. All of this consumed a significant amount of paper and postage and time.

Their solution was simply to add the continuing education professors to the system and enable them to perform these administrative tasks online. It was relatively easy to reprogram Jenzabar CX for this change. “Because the classes are already in the system. The students are already in the system. It just was that the professors weren’t in the system for these specialized classes,” he said. “This project is just finishing, but it will probably save in the neighborhood of 7 to 10 thousand pages mailed a year.”

Continuous Improvement into the Future

As the VSM initiative continues to improve operations, Kellerer feels positive about having deployed the integrated ERP system. “I think it has been wonderful. Not always easy. You don’t always make VSM and programming decisions easily. But that is what we’re about – trying to improve one bit at a time. And it was very important to have chosen Jenzabar early on. I think it has been a good decision for us,” he said.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.