Engineer takes soft tack on merging acquisitions' IT systems

Engineering consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz has taken the headache out of managing the software jungle, implementing a centralised software auditing system which is reducing the time, stress and cost behind software application and licence management.

Specialising in professional services consulting for the civil engineering and heavy industry sectors, the multinational company has been on an acquisition trail which has had a huge impact on its information systems.

Its purchases include a merger with New Zealand engineering company Kingston Morrison and UK-based Modus Consulting Engineers, both in 1999. In 2000, the company expanded into Asia by merging with Malaysian engineering consultants HS Liao Snd and Hong Kong building services group Gregory Asia.

In the wake of this spate of mergers, the company's information systems manager for Australia, Peter Nevin, said that as a multinational experiencing "explosive" growth, it needed to stop and consider how it would continue managing the task of running so many different software applications.

"On average, we merge with a new smaller [organisation] every three to four weeks so that equates to substantial growth for us as a global organisation with some 40 offices throughout the world," he said.

The problem for IT was that the company was accumulating a dispersed set of software applications. Nevin said this created a huge cost burden in terms of ownership and operation.

"As we merged with new companies the software auditing process became an absolute nightmare," he said. It is also imperative, for IT's [productivity] to discover quickly what is legally licensed to the acquired companies, he said.

With hundreds of new users now under Sinclair Knight Merz's belt, the company needed to bring its wider desktop and laptop fleet under control. In the last 18 months, a heavy merger environment added 400 users and workstations to the company's IT system - a resource which is connected to 250 servers and 40 local area networks that feed to a global wide area network (WAN), Nevin said.

In Australia, the company runs up to 1000 individual consulting projects a day, making software availability and its timely functioning a significant business need. Failing to manage all its software licences during a period of heavy internal growth could cause a logistical nightmare, Nevin said.

One of the company's most recent IT projects was the implementation of a global document management system, deployed in December 2001 to enable its engineers to chart the scope and progress of projects around the world.

Once this implementation was out of the way, the company could focus on other key IT initiatives, one of which was to develop a global system to manage its software applications.

In June, Sinclair Knight Merz rolled out a software management tool -- ManagementSoft 6.0 by US software outfit ManageSoft (a maker of automated software management solutions) -- to manage the distribution and auditing of its existing and inherited software applications. The rollout is being performed in 500-user blocks, first on Microsoft Outlook, on the company's 3000 desktops worldwide.

The solution acts as a software warehouse, which centralises corporate information and control of the company's software applications during, before and after their deployment. This enables the company to organise, receive, catalogue, store, choose, pack, test and distribute software for installation on any of the its computers, Nevin said.

Sinclair Knight Mertz invested $250,000 in the project, which covered software implementation, hardware and licensing costs.

Had the company not taken this direction, Nevin said it would have been burdened by the need to build another system in-house to navigate the software jungle.

The IT team needs the capability to deliver critical applications to the company's consultants and engineers anywhere and on demand from a remote location at any given time particularly with [software] media. The company also needs need to comply with the copyright laws of many different countries, Nevin said.

"This solution met that need because it optimised bandwidth, created a single accurate archiving and reporting environment to track software deployment, licensing and management costs, and it achieved this through timely global coverage.

"There are many other software providers whose products blow away the network once you install their application, but ManageSoft addresses the bandwidth issue." He said he'd found no other products in the marketplace which provide [sound] knowledge of the WAN."

The main strength of the solution was that it allowed the company to quickly account for all its software assets, to see how and where those resources were being used across the organisation, and analyse the cost to operate and manage those assets, Nevin said.

He said because software applications are a "push-type" technology, the company used to depend on one person to install, record, and track software deployments and management costs, but ManageSoft 6.0 cut out this labour-intensive process by automatically generating inventory reports.

"There's a lot of software we need to manage but the solution enables smooth production because it [has] a pre-built software library."

He said the new solution has also helped the company reduce costs by cutting two to three clerical positions.

Nevin regards the solution as a real value-add to the company as it manages around 4000 separate software packages including numerous in-house desktop packages used by engineers for project planning and simulation, and a small set of business packages like Microsoft, Autocad, Novell, Netscape, Oracle and Microstation.

Overall, the solution has increased staff productivity levels by giving them immediate access to software. And this enables engineers to deliver their projects faster, while reducing costs. "We run 10,000 active projects simultaneously and start and finish 100 projects a day, so good start-up and ramp-down times are imperative," Nevin said.

The system also helps the company's 40 local IT employees identify and repair any poor-functioning software faster than previously, thus lowering software maintenance costs as applications become self-healing.

Nevin said the system also manages the company's leasing arrangements for hardware, identifying the particulars of those agreements more quickly than before.

The biggest productivity boost he expects is that the ratio of people support to PCs will improve, from 1:80 to 1:100.

The only implementation challenge the company faced was in developing well in advance an adequate directory structure within the ManageSoft 6.0 tool - one which Nevin said could distribute software at current levels, or "embody our physical structure".

"Had we dealt with this a few weeks earlier the implementation wouldn't have been slightly delayed," he said.

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