IT = Inspiring Technology And Teamwork

EchoStar's IT Group Shines Brightly But Doesn't Burn Out

Businesses expand so rapidly that IT resources are stretched. Savvy hardware anddatabase applications carry a business only so far. So, how did EchoStar Communi-cationsmove 350 people over a weekend into a shopping mall, transforming it into a newheadquarters campus?

The business of delivering entertainment to households via satellite transmission isbooming. Being third to market in the spring of 1996, EchoStar Communications Corp.(Littleton, Colo.) moved quickly to gain market share, capturing over 33 percent of thenew subscriber market. Because EchoStar is vertically integrated, the IT organization mustsupport:

  • an engineering and design com- pany designing receivers and antennas;
  • a manufacturing company (out- sourcing actual unit assembly but managing the process and doing some final packaging in-house);
  • a distributor for the receivers;
  • an owner and operator of the uplink facility;
  • owners of satellites;
  • operators of customer service centers;
  • contract negotiators (so EchoStar can own the relationships with content providers like Viacom, Paramount Studios and HBO).
EchoStar's market performance has been a hit with investors who've boosted stock valuesby over 50 percent since the beginning of 1998. But, how does IT support growth on thisscale without coming apart at the seams? Having an understanding of the shared processesbecomes critical when, in EchoStar's case, we ask for "the impossible."

Because IT organizations are neither independent nor completely self-sufficient,developing strategic vendor relationships is critical. But there are not many vendorscapable of answering a requisition for large, multi-processor, mid-tier servers anddelivering it the next day; or sending senior database administrators to work overnightand weekends to team with in-house personnel to resolve problems; or reprogram a VRUapplication on the spot.

It's no longer unusual to build relationships with vendors to an extent that wasunheard of ten, or even five, years ago. There is a bottom-line value to be gained bytaking the time to work with vendors.

For example, HP's responses to EchoStar's new system deployment schedules over the lasttwo years included providing over 20 HP 9000 Model K400s and K500s on very short notice,backfilling with loaner units and devising other temporary strategies to fill the gaps.Similarly, Oracle Corporation augmented EchoStar's staff resources and supplied projectmanagement expertise.

Working For The Weekend
During a weekend move into EchoStar's new Riverfront facility -- while the company wasin the middle of rolling out its spring promotion -- teams from HP, Oracle and othervendors were tightly coordinated with various EchoStar teams so the installation andhook-ups of the infrastructure were orderly and swift. Similar effort paid off in thesummer of 1996 when the company created a 250-seat customer service center from scratch --in less that two months -- and again in early 1997 when the service center was expanded byan additional 250 seats, also in less than two months.

Recently, EchoStar's IT group converted from Oracle Financials 10.5 to 10.7, while atthe same time converting to new servers running MC ServiceGuard and a new disk farm fromEMC. Oracle consultants partnered with EchoStar personnel to lead the conversion effort,which demanded multiple test conversions and tight coordination of IT and business areapersonnel. HP provided high-level technical support, as this was the first implementationof the MC ServiceGuard strategy.

It became a major cooperative effort between EchoStar, HP, Oracle, EMC and othercontractors. The entire conversion was choreographed to the minute and accomplished withless than 52 hours downtime for the organization (over Memorial Day weekend).

EchoStar's success story began two years ago, when it faced the daunting task of makingmassive changes to its computing environment just to supply the tools-of-the-trade to newemployees and improve both system response times and reliability. At the same time, the ITorganization was learning the recently purchased Oracle financial modules.

Placing a high priority on adding processing "headroom" and making immediateimprovements in response times meant adding capacity. The answer was to purchase anadditional server and split the database from the applications. From the decision to addthe first of many additional servers until it was installed and operating spanned only 14days -- a pace most IT personnel would agree is extremely fast.

The accelerated pace resulted in a number of expedited steps. Configuring, acquiringbudget approval (for what was at the time, one of HP's most advanced servers) andcollaborating with HP to requisition, build and deliver the server was done in just a fewdays so it could be installed, tested and run. At the same time, the IT group wasdeveloping plans to load the company's database on the new system and repoint all of thevirtual connections.

And this took place while EchoStar added new database customers and business wasgrowing at full speed. In 1996 EchoStar earned just over $200 million in revenue. In 1997the company approached $500 million and this year most analysts are predicting over onebillion dollars. During that time, the workforce ballooned from 600 to 2,500 employees.

EchoStar attributes this growth to innovations made with digital set-top receivers, thehigh appeal of satellite services to businesses and education and features that enable PCsto connect to the satellite dish for digital-quality picture and sound

Other illustrations of how an open systems environment can adapt include converting toa switch-based NT corporate LAN from a router-based Novell network in just six weeks at atime when our network included just under 1,000 nodes. And later, when the company grew tosupport 1,800 nodes, we simultaneously converted from Windows 3.11 to Windows 95 and fromLotus cc:Mail to MS Outlook and MS Exchange in only nine weeks.


The pace of the Direct Broadcast Satellite industry requires around the clock dedication and commitment. Four tenets provide mission-control and guidance for EchoStar's IT group:

  1. Information systems must be available and stable. This tenet is the basic block-and-tackle of all IT organizations and without it, all other initiatives are severely hampered.
  2. Focus on value. For every penny EchoStar IT wins in a budget, there must be tangible, visible benefit. Each acquisition of new equipment, software, or services must clearly demonstrate how the investment helps EchoStar support the customer base, gain new distribution channels, improve service for dealers, distributors, or subscribers, etc.
  3. IT teams' makeup and deployment aims to promote increasingly faster responses to organization requirements. This is specifically spelled out at EchoStar: every individual has the opportunity to make a difference and as such, they are required to make a difference.
  4. An advanced architecture is required which provides a framework for business processes, responsibilities, application software integration and technology infrastructure. Without a comprehensive blueprint, IT's rapid responses more often result in non-integrated point solutions that can easily collapse a business group. With an architectural framework, each effort weaves another scene in the overall pattern of the IT tapestry.

Two years ago, support for all of EchoStar's enterprise applications was limited to just three UNIX and six Novell servers. The hardware environment was severely constrained with applications and databases running on a single server. The systems crashed daily.

Today, EchoStar runs applications supporting the complex range of company business and marketing processes on 23 new HP 9000 D- and K-class servers and 45 HP NetServers as well as Dell and Gateway NT servers. Our network encompasses over 4,000 nodes extending to over 20 domestic locations and to Europe.

-- T.R.

The Need For Speed
In our market, IT solutions must go from need to implementation in days -- not monthsor even weeks. To address the enormous complexity and time constraints, we laid out anoverall application and environmental architecture. Within this framework we encapsulatedentire applications (like Oracle's Inventory Control System), as objects and thenintegrated them into a stable, non-volatile, overall architecture. Designs are embodied inrule sets. Non-integrated point solutions are prevented.

In May 1997, EchoStar undertook a major overhaul of distribution processes for ourhardware products. To make the economics work, an entirely new system was required tocalculate and distribute sales incentive and commission payments to EchoStar's dealers anddistributors.

The environment went from one of cutting 2,000 checks a month to one requiring up to10,000 payments each week. Even though we stretched our capabilities to include electronicfund transfer (EFT), statements were still needed. A secure Web application was deployedto provide detailed payment and accrual information to our dealers and distributors.

The Frame Up
More importantly, the team applied architectural principles to define the framework forthe solution. Rather than design an application that distributes a fixed dollar amountbased on activation of a digital receiver, we architected an environment that calculatesvalue based on events and distributes the value to a particular entity, with value, eventsand entities defined by rules.

For example, value could be defined as dollars, points, or merchandise. Events could bethe activation of a receiver, activation of a specific service, or attainment of a volumetier. Entities could be dealers, distributors, OEMs, brokers, or even subscribers.

By architecting an environment, rather than designing an application, development timewas greatly reduced with initial components placed in production in as little as threeweeks and the first disbursements made within six weeks.

It now takes less than a week to roll out a new disbursement program with the majorityof the time spent defining the business rules. Over the past year, EchoStar has rolled out14 different disbursement programs, from advertising co-op programs to specialinstallation reimbursement incentives -- all with no additional coding.

--Tom Ryan is the CIO for EchoStar Communications Corp.