Dealer Sold on Network Stations

IBM reports that 1998 was a very good year for sales of its Network Stations, with a growth of approximately 40 percent over the previous year. Not resting on its laurels, IBM has announced major deployments of its thin-client technology to companies such as Nissan Infiniti, American General Finance and Sysco Corp.

"We think 1999 will be the year when people make the move towards a 'thin' infrastructure," predicts Edward Petrozelli, general manager for IBM's Network Computer Division. Predictions from Zona Research (Redwood City, Calif.) and International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.) back this up. Zona predicts thin client sales will jump from two million units in 1998 to more than 13 million by next year. IDC estimates the industry will ship 6.8 million thin-client units in 2002, up from 507,000 in 1998.

Over the past year, IBM has dramatically shifted gears in its network computer (NC) strategy, repositioning its NCs as access devices for Windows NT networks, incorporating terminal server software from Citrix Technologies Inc. (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.). Still, IBM's strongest bet for its Network Station architecture may be in the terminal replacement market, according to IDC. There is strong demand for terminal replacements from IBM's customer base, many of whom seek to extend their investments in AS/400, S/390 and RS/6000 technology. IDC predicts that IBM Network Station clients will be only slightly more expensive over five years than text-based terminals: $3,144 per user per year for Network Stations versus $2,535 for terminals. However, this is far less than the jump to a PC, which would run about $5,713 per user, per year.

At Nissan Infiniti -- which maintains a network of 150 upscale auto dealers -- a recent deployment of Series 300 Network Stations as replacements for Twinax terminals has meant dramatic gains in performance. The Network Stations support 10 Mbps over an Ethernet connection to AS/400e model 170s installed at most of the dealerships, says Victor Villasenor, IT manager with Nissan Infiniti, based in Gardena, Calif. "In addition to faster performance, the Network Stations also support multiple sessions in a user-friendly GUI environment."

Infiniti's Network Stations tap a home-grown dealership information and communication system, called Infinitinet 2000 (INET2000), which runs on the local AS/400s. "There's a single AS/400 at each dealership, except for those dealerships that are running routed remotes over a frame-relay connection to a host AS/400," Villasenor explains.

Currently, there are approximately 150 Network Stations in use at Infiniti dealerships nationwide, with the projected total expected to climb into the hundreds through 1999, according to Villasenor. Infiniti employees access AS/400 applications through 5250 emulation sessions. Browser capabilities will be added in the near future, Villasenor says.

So far, these thin clients have saved the dealerships 50 percent in initial hardware acquisition costs compared to PCs, according to Villasenor. He also expects to improve customer service and worker productivity, since the maintenance requirements are lower than that of fully-loaded PCs.

The AS/400-based INET2000 system provides each dealership with vehicle history and financial data, contract and warranty data, and productivity tools. Dispatchers use the INET2000 system to create appointments and customer work orders, and service technicians use the service tech menu to clock onto a job, add remarks, order parts and complete the job. The system also processes payments entered by cashiers.

Primarily, the dealers' finance departments -- which require PC-based calculation and contract printing capabilities -- still use fully loaded PCs, says Villasenor. These PCs are linked into the network as AS/400 clients. Infiniti dealers also use PCs to access electronic parts and service data catalog stored on CD-ROM.

Integrated Netfinity Servers on the AS/400s -- running client control, print management, remote management software and Network Station Manager -- allow INET2000 support staff at the corporate office to manage the servers, dealers' PCs, all thin clients, hubs, routers and printers.

Thin clients such as Network Stations have enabled AS/400 shops "to slowly introduce new technologies that reduce costs or give them a competitive edge," says Stephen Malkinson, program director for strategic alliances at IBM's Network Computer Division. "So while there is indeed a modest cost savings if thin clients are chosen over PCs, the real payback is when those new technologies are put to work in a manner that doesn't sap a company's resources and exasperate users."