Company: Lynx Technology
Customer: Hays plc
Submitted by: Lynx Technology
Hays plc is a name that most business people will know for one reason or another. With annual turnover in the year ended 30 June 1998 of £1.5 billion, the business services group is a Times Top 100 company with three operating divisions – Personnel, Commercial and Distribution.
The latter is probably the most visible, the white lorries with their distinctive blue logo are a familiar sight on Britain’s road network. Centred on its facilities in Brinklow, Milton Keynes, Hays’ logistics operations are part of the £792 million Distribution business. They provide retail support services for many household names including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Scottish Courage and many more.
There are many aspects to this part of Hays’ business. The company not only transports goods around the country for its customers, it provides crate management and washing services and logistics management of non-merchandise equipment for retailers – display units, shelving and other fixtures and fittings.
This part of the business has 18 customers and is centred around Hays’ transport management centre at Draycott in the Clay in Derbyshire. It is here that the company stores the fixtures and fittings and co-ordinates their movement to customer sites all over the country.
A well-established part of Hays’ business, this process has been managed successfully by a bespoke 3GL-based application running in a DEC VAX mainframe for many years. Last year however, several factors combined to prompt a review of the platform and the application.
I.S. Operations Manager, Clive Cockburn explains: ‘We wanted to get more out of the system in terms of the reporting and being able to unlock the information. We also wanted to make it easier to use and move towards a Windows-based system. We also needed to make the system Year 2000 compliant and knew it would be a lot of work to update the existing application.’
In addition, most of the applications that the mainframe supported would also need to be updated and Hays decided this would be the right time to move to new platforms.
The company subsequently developed its own suite of applications that would meet the needs of all its logistics operations. When a new contract begins Hays has to set up a logistics support system that will meet the customer’s exact needs. ‘It’s like setting up a new business every time’, says Cockburn, ‘and it takes a while to get systems integrated. We need systems that we can develop and adapt to different situations very quickly.’
Using Microsoft Visual Basic and SQL, the company developed separate transport and warehouse management systems and a third that was a combination of both. It was this third application – called Integra – that Hays intended to use to run its non-merchandise equipment logistics management services.
The development work went well and the resulting client-server application was elegant and efficient. In particular it was very well balanced, putting most of the processing burden onto the server and leaving the client plenty of room to use query and reporting tools.
But Cockburn was concerned that it still would not be enough. Once it was rolled out, the application would be used by around 50 users spread across several different sites all over the UK. That would mean running the system across the company’s wide area network and could have implications on bandwidth.
‘I knew that it would run well initially but also that if someone created a large report in Crystal Reports and ran it across the WAN, that it would put the availability of other systems on the network at risk. That’s why I started thinking about a thin client system.’
He knew that a thin client system would ensure that even more of the work would be performed centrally by the terminal servers and that the network traffic generated would be very predictable and manageable. Resilience could be provided by using fault tolerant servers and the intelligent routing system on the WAN would ensure communications lines stayed open.
Around this time in Summer 1998, Lynx Technology had contacted Cockburn looking for prospective new business. Although the conversation started on the subject of maintenance, Cockburn quickly homed in on Lynx’s expertise in Microsoft, Citrix and thin client deployment.
Soon the two companies had devised a thin client system that would be able to support a slightly modified version of the Integra application. But Hays needed to prove to its management team that the system could work and so Lynx’s Proof of Concept Centre in Belper was brought into play.
Lynx’s ability to do this and its service during the testing stage was, says Cockburn, vital in securing the go-ahead for the project.
‘They had all the technology needed to simulate a WAN and the traffic loads. They put in two routers, a SQL server and a terminal server. They went to the effort of doing all of this and made two of their technical consultants available. We took up two of our programmers and we went through the problems together over four days. We made a few tweaks to the printing and import and export features, proved that it would work and put together a presentation.’
IT and business managers from Hays came to see the presentation and system in action. ‘We showed them that it could work. It was a great success and they walked away from the presentation sold on the idea.’
Subsequently, Lynx supplied and installed twin Compaq Proliant 3000 servers to run Microsoft Terminal Server and two fault-tolerant Compaq Proliant 6500 servers to run the Integra application. This configuration is capable of supporting up to 60 concurrent users. In practice, around 50 of Hays staff will use the system on a daily basis, running it through a Seamless Windows system fed by Citrix MetaFrame client software.
Hays managed all the applications distribution itself and has now gone through stress testing and is due to go live with the system in the early summer. Lynx, says Cockburn, has played a valuable role in making the project the success it has been so far. Hays is a company that understands business relationships – one of its contracts runs for 25 years – and knows how important they are to achieving long-term success.
‘They have done a good job. Right from the start I had a good feel about the company and I have been impressed by their honesty. Hays is a fairly down to earth business, our customers are very demanding and we have to do things at short notice – Lynx was always able to respond to our needs.’
Lynx is now working with Hays on a similar project that will update the company’s crate management and cleaning systems, exploit the benefits of the Terminal Server and Citrix MetaFrame system, and add to the resilience of the server farm located in the IT department at Brinklow in Milton Keynes.
Further thin-client projects are already on the drawing board says Cockburn and on the ground of what he has seen so far, Lynx will be asked to work with Hays on those projects as well. It could be the start of a long and productive relationship.