Establishing a DSL Network
Proper planning and adequate help enable the director of information services for On Assignment Inc. to put DSL in 70 offices.
Everyone has heard DSL installation horror stories: Bankrupt broadband providers leaving their customers out to dry, installation delays, poor service, slower than expected speeds, and inability to receive service.
Now imagine what it must have been like for David Clements, putting DSL in his company's 70 offices over a five-week period that included the December holidays.
So, how did it go? Smoothly, thanks to proper planning and adequate help.
Clements is the director of information services for On Assignment Inc., a $200 million dollar-per-year professional staffing firm that Forbes Magazine named as one of the 200 best companies in America for nine years running.
Previously, the company communicated with its offices by modem. Sales staff used a homegrown system for customer and order management, and for tracking the temps' information, availability or where they were working. Each night, office servers uploaded their information to the database at the main office. While this system worked, it left a lot to be desired, particularly since it didn't provide for e-mail.
"As e-mail became more important for our operations, we decided to re-evaluate our network structure," says Clements. After investigating several options, it decided that DSL offered the best cost/performance ratio, even though it couldn't be made available to all offices. "DSL resolved the issue for 80 percent of our staffing consultants," he explains. "For the other 20 percent, phone modem can be used as their traffic volume isn't that high."
He selected UUNet as the DSL provider because it offered the ability to coordinate the installation at all On Assignment offices. Local connections were to come from other providers. Due to the disarray in the DSL market at that time, though, his primary concern was selecting a firm that would stay in business. After evaluating a number of options, Clements instructed UUNet to use Covad Communications whenever possible, followed by Northpoint Communications and Rhythms NetConnections as the third option. His choice turned out to be auspicious. Covad is still going whereas the others have shut their doors.
Clements instructed the ISPs to install NetScreen VPN appliances rather than the usual routers. "We wanted to establish a VPN network to make sure the interoffice communications were secure in transit," he explains, "so people can't hack into our database updates or e-mails."
Piggybacking Software Upgrades
The other aspect of the rollout: software updates. Since the company was going to have to send someone to each of the sites to set up the Internet connections, On Assignment decided to perform other necessary software upgrades at the same time. Clements and his staff evaluated what activities the account reps would be doing now that they had an Internet connection. They decided that the main function would be pulling down resumes in PDF or Microsoft Word format, so they would need Adobe Acrobat Reader. The company also decided that since it would now have a faster connection with its offices, it could upgrade the level of office communications, and so it needed Adobe Acrobat for the main office. In addition, workstations would need an e-mail program, Web browser and anti-virus software. Printer drivers would also be upgraded.
Even if Clements had the staff available to fly around the country to do all the upgrades, it would have been cost prohibitive. He also knew that local staff couldn't be expected to install the software.
"At the time our average sales person contributed a million dollars a year to the organization," Clemens explains, "so it would have been very expensive to have them doing anything other than their job, even for a few hours."
As a result, they have a policy that any time it takes more than twenty minutes over the phone to solve a problem, they send in a technician. He hired United Service Network (USNet) to oversee the software installation and configuration at all the locations.
"I firmly believe in using an outside service for this type of project," Clemens explains. "It is far less expensive than taking unqualified people and pulling them away from what they are good at."
The DSL rollout was scheduled to occur during December and early January, a slow business season. The timing for each office depended upon the most unpredictable aspect—when the phone company would drop the line, anywhere from 30 to 45 days after placing the order. After the pilot, UUNet would order the service for about ten sites each week.
In the meantime, On Assignment sent a CD containing all the software it needed installed to USNet, which copied the disk and distributed it to its local technicians.
Once the phone company activated the line, UUNet would notify On Assignment and send in a technician to run the final few feet of cable and install the VPN appliance. On Assignment then called USNet to schedule a technician for the following day and informed the office staff to make field visits at that time so the technician could work on the computers. The USNet technician took an average of two hours to install the new software and address any necessary configuration issues. By Jan. 7, the changeover was complete.
The Right Choice
Clemens is convinced he made the right choice in going with DSL. It's cheaper, but it's also more work than using a third party to establish and manage a network. That's why he continues to maintain the modem connections at each office, which take over when the DSL connection goes down.
"DSL is a very viable solution if your understanding and expectations are correct," he says. "The lines we put in have been very good, but you will have to do the legwork and use your own resources to manage the network."
Details: On Assignment Inc.
Team leader: David Clements, Director of Information Services
Organization: On Assignment Inc.
Business/Mission: Company provides short- and long-term temporary and temp-to-permanent staffing for laboratories and healthcare institutions.
Location: Headquarters are located in Calabasas, Calif.; 70 remote offices.
Web Site: www.onassignment.com
Goal: Switch remote offices from modem connections to DSL so offices can use e-mail and the databases are updated in real time (rather than in nightly batches).
Scope: There were 70 offices switched over a five-week period.
Equipment/Platform: Unix server at each location running proprietary application on an Informix database.
Solution: Hired a single vendor to coordinate DSL connections at each location. Created custom software installation CDs and had outsourcer install software and configure servers and workstations on a staggered basis.
- SDSL and IDSL:
- UUNet (Part of Worldcom)
- Approximately $150 per month per location for SDSL
- Software installation and configuring:
- United Service Networking (USNet)
- $95/hour, $25,000 to $30,000 total
- VPN Appliances:
- NetScreen Technologies Inc.
Results: Cut networking costs from over $300,000 per year to under $120,000.
Future Challenges: In December, company will be swapping out all servers in remote offices and replacing homegrown application with PeopleSoft. At the same time it will switch remaining offices still on modems over to frame relay.
Cost Savings: $200,000 to $225,000 per year by switching to DSL; uncalculated (but significant) cost savings through outsourcing of software deployment.
Evaluation Requirements: With both vendors, reliability proved to be a key evaluation criterion. Many DSL vendors have folded, and On Assignment needed someone reliable to take care of software installation. "Knowing the job will be managed well far outweighs any minor price savings we may have gotten from another vendor," says Clements.
Other Products Considered: Frame relay was judged too expensive.