Miles To Go, Promises To Keep
IT Supports Customer-Driven Solutions
As databases filled, GLS Corp. experienced major operational headaches. Theirsystems, including sales, financial and accounting crashed every time the total number ofusers peaked, often on a daily basis. After migrating its enterprise operations to anopen, distributed system, GLS' IT management looks back.
In the early 1990s, GLS Corporation (Arlington Heights, Ill.), a manufacturer ofcomposites, elastomers and specialty polymers, faced a now common business dilemma --company growth quickly outstripped the capabilities of its manufacturing systems. Thecompany's revenues had nearly tripled since installing and basing its operations on aUnisys System 80 mini-computer in the early 1980s.
With business booming through the 1990s, GLS executives and IT managers decided tomigrate all operations to a client-server architecture. The aim was to build a reliablesystems infrastructure while ensuring much needed flexibility for future development."Having this capacity to upgrade systems as business conditions dictated wasabsolutely essential," observed Steve Dehmlow, president and CEO of GLS. "It wason this point in particular that client-server appeared to us as truly distinguished fromthe same old way and would lift us from the same old unsatisfactory results."
GLS began by implementing the MXP Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application fromForesight Software, Inc. (Atlanta, Ga.). MXP is popular among mid-sized manufacturersbecause of its functional capabilities achieved with the use of selected modules. MXP washighly appealing to GLS because of its use of Progress Software Corporation's (Bedford,Mass.) 4GL that, combined with additional tools and RDBMS technology from Progress, madethe overall ERP solution easily modified on an as-needed basis.
After having used servers from another vendor, GLS ultimately selected HP 9000 K210 asan application server with HP network servers at each distributed location to support thenew system. The solution that gelled from Foresight, Progress and HP was designed toenable GLS to change their business model and apply technology to processes never beforeautomated. It was significant that the Progress foundation was tuned for fast developmentof new applications while still able to integrate packaged applications that company usersfound effective.
Because of the company's operational constraints, testing at a single location wasimpossible. The company had to simultaneously cut over twelve new distribution centers,complicating the training arrangements for these geographically distributed operations.
Live In '95
The new system went live in December 1995. Easing the pain of integrating the newplatform, GLS took several steps to make the transition smoother. In one step, theysolidified the transition with project management consulting from Stratis Corp. (WalledLake, Mich.). In another, they arranged for application module customizationspecifications from OPTIONS Software & Consulting Inc. (Burlington, Ont., Can.) whocoded the initial modifications and provided critical training.
Lastly, throughout the transition and deployment period, the IT organization askeddepartment managers for regular progress reports on how the system was living up to itspromises.
For GLS, not only were the stakes high, so too were users' expectations, both initiallyand thereafter as various upgrades were implemented. Along with the immediate, urgent needto improve the old system, the company was changing rapidly -- in several of 1993'squarters revenue was up 20 percent -- so long-term flexibility would be the ultimatemeasure of success.
In 1998, GLS is evaluating the promises of client-server. It appears that Progress'proposed improvements in the early days remain true to form.
The first question they wanted answered was "How well did the infrastructuresupport the company's continued growth?" GLS, in fact, strengthened its position as amarket leader throughout the decade. In this highly competitive, very focused marketplace,this achievement clearly would not have been possible with the Unisys mainframe or with ahost-based paradigm.
The systems are effectively supporting company users and processes that now supplycomposite fabricators with product lines from over 90 of the industry's most respectedsuppliers. With 18 stocking locations strategically located throughout the Central andSoutheastern United States, GLS' Composite Distribution Corporation is able to marketitself and operate as a local supplier in 22 states, offering localized productwarehousing, customer service and sales support to its customers.
GLS sees three advantages of the client-server architecture it implemented:
Reduced overhead costs. With the client-server environment, GLS keeps overhead costs at a level significantly below that of the mainframe. This helps GLS keep operating costs lower than competitors at a time when profits are pennies per product ton and margins mean everything.
Flexible operational support. The solution is continually tuned to GLS' business. For example, an initial enhancement to one application enables handling of inconsistent units of measure, something competitors can't do. GLS can stock material on a per-pound basis and sell it on a per-pallet, -roll or -drum basis. The company has also added a decision support database system to the network. This enables business managers to sort data and experiment with ways of evaluating their business units down to the distribution center or sales territory level. Interoperability of these reporting applications with desktop applications enables users to download information into a Microsoft environment and create advanced spreadsheets using familiar tools.
Proactive approach to systems development. GLS' IT Group has become one of the major drivers in supporting the customer focus of the business. As the group succeeds in one application area they move on to improve others by working with users throughout the company as needed and leveraging off-the-shelf software wherever it's beneficial. Users are continually finding ways to use applications for improving processes, increasing the speed of processing orders, identifying trends and relaying information about the customer to the customer service team.
While the amount of cultural change involved with all new business processes had been under-specified in the initial evaluation, day-to-day operations was smoothly working again within 12 months. With six more months of usage and watching the company's users proactively find ways to do things, management was satisfied that the new system was thoroughly integrated into the business.
Meanwhile, GLS' Thermoplastic Elastomers Division, a provider and distributor of customstyrenic thermoplastic elastomer compounds, continued evolving Foresight's MXPmanufacturing software to support an expanding business. The division's success atenhancing and using the system to underpin that expansion has been proven as they aremoving to a new 60,000 square foot state-of-the-art production facility at the end of1998.
Hal Greene, director of Infor-mation Systems for GLS, is upbeat about the company'stransformation, attributing a big portion of it to client/server's flexibility. "GLSestablished a dynamic systems infrastructure," he says. "It not only supports usin the present, it encourages new programming for future benefit. Fueling the creativityof internal developers, in fact, it is truly one of the key drivers of our growth."
Two other GLS organizations benefited from the changes as well. The Great LakesTerminal & Transport Corporation and GLS Transportation, Inc., who provide transportservices to the chemical industry, have used the system and supporting HP server networkbackbone to communicate more effectively with their customers.
One early concern was reliability. The tendency of the prior system to crash just whenthe workload was heaviest left IT planners constantly monitoring CPU performance and diskcapacity. "We've been hearing about service level agreements recently," saysGreene. "But at the time we were evaluating hardware platforms, all we had to go onwas HP's hardware data sheets and notably, what other customer-users reported, whichconfirmed our choice of an HP 9000 K210."
Over time, it provided such cost-effective operation in support of the enterprise thatGLS purchased a second one. "The second [server] provides a custom disaster recoverysystem in Cary, Illinois. With the use of an effective frame relay provider," Greenesays, "we now have the ability to completely recover in four hours if the primarysystem or building were completely destroyed. We found it was more cost-effective to buytwo HP 9000 K210 machines than to contract for disaster recovery. The payback is less thantwo years."
Has GLS taken advantage of application flexibility? Since moving to the new platform,they have rolled out new applications across all areas of the business. Among these arecustomer service, sales and operations systems. All are being regularly enhanced in linewith changes to the business. Some unique accounting applications have also beendeveloped, again using Progress' tools and database to accommodate unusual characteristicsof the company's polymer products. The company periodically adapts its financial andaccounting systems on an as-needed basis.
--John Walles is chief financial officer of GLS Corporation.