Getting a grip: Scholastic Australia

Scholastic Australia is the local incarnation of the world's largest publisher of children's books and multimedia. The Australian branch employs some 400 people divided between major city offices and the national head office and warehousing centre on the NSW central coast. The company covers a wide range of products and activities, including book clubs, mail order and subscription services, various book publishing lines, educational products and multimedia.

IT manager Andrew Ogbourne says this range of activities is reflected in a diversity of IT systems. Five different hardware vendors are represented with Compaq, Dell, IBM AS/400 and some Hewlett-Packard 9000 and Wang boxes (both now in the process of being phased out).

There are nearly as many operating systems on the boil: HP's HP/UX flavour of Unix and Wang's OS are, like the boxes they run on, being retired. Windows NT continues, however, and the company is starting to use OS/400.

Two network platforms (mainly Cisco, with some Bay/Nortel) and three kinds of database (Oracle, QLServer and DB2) round out the picture of diversity.

Does this kind of heterogeneous environment add to the IT department's costs? And if so, where exactly does the budget take a hit?

"The main cost is in building and keeping IT staff to maintain and support the platforms at an operational level," Ogbourne says. "Systems administrators, operators, network engineers, database administrators all play crucial roles in keeping the systems running and building the infrastructure to support new applications."

Ogbourne estimates that personnel costs amount to perhaps half of the total IT spend, with costs for system administration staff amounting to about a third of that.

"If I had a wider range of platforms than I do," he says, "I might expect to spend some 30 per cent more.

"Providing this support across several different hardware, operating system, database and even application environments requires you to have specialists (on staff or otherwise) in all platforms and to ensure that most staff are familiar with several environments," he says. "This is generally more costly than providing the same level of support in a homogeneous environment - both due to the headcount required and the diverse skills of the staff you must have. [But we're able to] grow both the size of the business and the diversity of applications we support, and we're not having to grow the size of the administration staff to do it, because we're consolidating the platforms we're running them on."

However, this more effective use of staff does carry a hidden cost: training. In most cases Scholastic will train staff rather than hire outside expertise. With the shift towards AS/400, says Ogbourne, they are retraining staff previously working on NT or on the legacy Wang systems.

Ogbourne sees data connectivity between these diverse boxes, operating systems and (to an extent) databases as "more or less a given, for the modern platforms", aided by standards such as TCP/IP together with ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) and JDBC (Java Database Connectivity). Both these database translators are open standard application programming interfaces (APIs).

ODBC, pushed primarily by Microsoft, was first created by the SQL Access Group in 1992, and is based on the standard SQL Call-Level Interface. It allows files to be accessed in a number of different databases, including Access, dBase, DB2, Excel and Text. The Java version, JDBC, works with a ‘bridge' application allowing access to these same ODBC-accessible databases.

"However," says Ogbourne, "when one of the platforms is of a vintage where this level of connectivity is not really available (such as Wang), integration does become a major issue."

The Wang systems were, he says "our main, foundation back-office systems that ran our entire business. It's the usual legacy systems story - built up over 25 years or so, most of the applications were written in-house and did a very good job of what they did for many years, but now we're finding that apart from the difficulties supporting the actual platform, they're difficult to integrate and to get the information in and out of."

Changing platforms obviously costs a lot of money. Even in this case, however, Ogbourne feels that "the IT cost to integrate the systems, while significant, is minor in comparison to the cost to the business of not having information available".

Similar issues apply, says Ogbourne, when considering the application platform. "The kind of applications I'm talking about do the things that everybody does: the bulk of the enterprise resource planning. In the past those applications have been part of people's ‘differentiators' - what the customer buys - and many companies have built them themselves. That's no longer the case. I think it's a far better strategy to buy those things from a single vendor like SAP, Oracle, JD Edwards, or maybe PeopleSoft.

In that case those functions become a commodity in the same way that databases became a commodity 10 years ago, and operating systems still earlier."

Thus Ogbourne believes that the applications of one IT era become the platforms of the next, allowing you to focus your time and energy on the things that really are differentiators. As a part of the architecture - say the database - matures from an application to a platform, standards develop to allow different flavours to interact more easily. In the case of databases, it is SQL and ODBC/JDBC.

"The difference today," he says, "is simply that application platforms are less mature in the cycle than hardware, operating system or database.

"For this reason, the maintenance, operational and integration costs of having diverse application platforms is a really significant cost. A big challenge over the next few years is to standardise the application platform to reduce these costs and allow us to redeploy IT resources to adding real value by developing things that give us competitive advantage (as distinct from developing functions that just keep us in business)."

Each of these components in the overall information system is the subject of efforts to develop standards; in many cases these arise from different interest groups and may overlap in their scope. And each IT manager may see different ones as critical, from his or her own perspective. In Andrew Ogbourne's view, "for hardware and operating system interaction, I see the key standard as TCP/IP. For databases, the standards are SQL, ODBC and JDBC."

E-commerce is still, he feels, in an embryonic stage as far as platform goes. "E-commerce is still developing fast," he notes. "You need to be there but because the industry,E-commerce is still, he feels, in an embryonic stage as far as platform goes. "E-commerce is still developing fast," he notes. "You need to be there but because the industry, the software and the platforms are still developing, I think it's a bit early to decide on a long-term platform."

J2EE (Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition) is a Java platform designed for large-scale (such as mainframe) computing. Developed by Sun, together with partners such as IBM, J2EE is designed to simplify application development in a thin-client tiered environment. It does this by using standardised, reusable components and by automating many parts of the programming process.

EJB (Enterprise JavaBeans) is an architecture developed by Sun for setting up Java-based program components in a server, allowing the enterprise to control change in client computers, at the server level. Like all Java-based architectures, its products can run across multiple operating systems.

As to the specifics of Scholastic Australia's strategy, he reports that "we have largely standardised the network platform although interoperability is such that I almost consider it a commodity now. We are well into the exercise of standardising the hardware and operating systems platforms toward NT and AS/400 (whereas today we also support Unix and Wang). We will be maintaining two platforms going forward largely for reasons of compatibility of applications with our US parent, which uses AS/400 extensively."

Why phase out Unix? "We don't hate Unix," he says. "We did some fairly detailed cost/benefit analysis of NT, Unix and AS/400 in the ERP situation we're implementing, and I was surprised to find that Unix came out by far the most costly. And you need some pretty specialist technical skills to run it. It makes the idea of its being a cheap platform a fallacy, really."

Scholastic currently supports Oracle, DB2 and SQL but will phase out SQL over the next 12 months, in the interest of reducing the number of different databases.

"We are in the process of implementing JD Edwards OneWorld to form a single applications platform around which all our other applications will be arranged," he says. "It will form the basis for inventory management, purchasing, sales order processing, dispatch and so on. We'll link our e-commerce applications to it. It's a stronger platform that's not going to fail; it enables us to do projects more directly beneficial to the business, such as allowing our customers to place and track orders on the Internet."

"We have already standardised messaging applications on Exchange," Ogbourne said. "For Internet applications development, we have used Oracle's (various) application server platforms. Although standardising this aspect of our portfolio would certainly be a good idea, it would be dangerous to do so before a strong, stable platform that can operate well with other platform elements has emerged. We haven't really got to that point yet."-Since completing this interview, Andrew Ogbourne has left Scholastic Australia to take up a position with an IT consultancy

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