Apria Healthcare Group Consolidates on the AS/400

When consolidating servers, companies open themselves up to risks, since they usually rely on a single platform and fewer machines. For Apria Healthcare Group Inc., headquartered in Costa Mesa, Calif., the power of the new AS/400 models has made it easy to consolidate and centralize its far-flung operations across 350 locations. The home healthcare provider has shrunk its distributed array of 175 systems down to about 50 – and the effort is continuing.

“There’s a lot of risk in consolidating,” says George Suda, CIO and executive vice president of Apria. “Once you start consolidating servers, you consolidate your risk. However, I don’t have to worry about the AS/400 platform.”

Not that Apria is scaling back its commitment to the AS/400. To the contrary, the company is ramping up its AS/400 operations significantly to support new initiatives, including a data warehouse and imaging system. And Suda – who has been working with the platform since its Silverlake days in the late 1980s – is its biggest cheerleader.

“With the AS/400, you’re not worrying about new releases of the operating system, about what packages are and aren’t going to work, and what do I have to do to get upgraded,” Suda says. “The diversity is there as well – from either running an NT server under the covers, to running MQ Series, to running Domino, to running Lotus Notes e-mail. I don’t have to have all different kinds of skill sets when it’s related to the hardware.”

The company’s headquarters operations are currently run on an 840 12-way AS/400, as part of a beta program, as well as an eight-way system. The remaining systems are model 620s located at various branch locations, Suda says.

“We even still have some CISC boxes left, which we’re pulling out as we speak,” he adds.

Apria, which provides respiratory therapy, home infusion and home medical equipment, has annual revenues of more than $1 billion, and is considered the nation’s leading home healthcare company.

Apria’s back-office functions are run on two of the leading ERP solutions. Financial, accounting, accounts payable, and general ledger are run on JD Edwards OneWorld. Apria’s payroll and HR applications are run on SAP on the AS/400. Apria’s experience with the SAP implementation illustrates both the challenges and advantages of working within the AS/400 world, Suda says.

“At the start of the project, [Apria’s systems integrator] listed the AS/400 as a risk — they didn’t know anything about it!” he explains. “By the end of the project, however, the project manager was an AS/400 convert. That’s because the AS/400 was a non-event in the project. Usually, in an SAP implementation project, there are database issues, hardware issues, and all other kinds of issues. These issues were non-existent on the AS/400.”

While Suda says he believes IBM doesn’t do enough to market the AS/400, he points out that IBM offers another winning technology that too few companies are taking advantage of – MQ Series. All application messaging at Apria is routed through an AS/400 acting as a communications hub via MQ Series.

“MQ Series is the best kept secret out there,” he says. “When I first started here, our guys were building their own transaction communication system. They didn’t know MQ Series was out there.”

At Apria, one AS/400 handles data communications for the entire company, he points out.

“We run MQ Series very heavily. We’re probably one of the largest users of MQ Series on the AS/400 in the world. We probably send a million transactions a day and take in $100 million in orders over MQ Series.”

Apria’s consolidation efforts have resulted in dramatic reductions in processing times for month-end closings, Suda notes. A few years ago, when the company’s headquarters were run on model F60 and F70 boxes, “it used to take 360 hours to do our month end, running the box at 100% capacity,” Suda recalls. “That time went down to 26 hours when we switched to a four-way model 540.” That dropped to two hours when Suda brought in an eight-way processor. While Suda is still testing the 12-way model 840, he expects this window to drop to minutes.

While Suda is satisfied with the AS/400 and IBM’s continued enhancement of the platform, he says he would like to see more integration of communications tools such as MQ Series. He would also like to see more printer support for IP-based networks and larger systems.

“Once you get into these large boxes, and you’re handling thousands of users, the output maintenance is a little difficult,” he relates.

Apria currently is developing a data warehouse, and is evaluating various solutions.

“When I first came in and evaluated our data warehouse, it was more like a data junkyard,” Suda remarks. “As a proof of concept, we started trapping financial information, and rolling those numbers up here at corporate. Now we have this fairly large collection of data, and we do have some ways of looking at it, and we’re now evaluating some toolsets to do that.”

Apria is looking at a number of solutions to build its e-commerce functionality on the AS/400, including WebSphere, with WebSphere Integrator, and Vignette for managing the content.

Apria is also considering wireless connectivity for its distribution warehouses, which will consist of radio frequency bar-coding devices that will tie into Apria’s JD Edwards inventory system. However, Suda cautions, “We’re all at 101 on this. We’re not going to rush into this thing. Wireless is maybe two years down the road.”

“We’re open to just about anything when it makes business sense,” Suda says.

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