Drive time

Alfardan Automobiles has overhauled its entire IT infrastructure to extend internet connectivity across the enterprise, speed data access and improve decision making.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  October 29, 2002

|~||~||~|Alfardan Automobiles, Qatar’s sole distributor for BMW/Mini, has overhauled its network architecture, replaced its existing hardware and upgraded its software stack in order to extend internet connectivity across the enterprise, speed data access/distribution and sharpen its competitive edge.

“We wanted to achieve better communication between our various departments, improve integration and increase resource sharing between our locations,” says Asmaeil Kattan, information systems manager at Alfardan Group of Companies. “At the same time, we wanted to cut costs, save employees time and improve the decision making process of the business, so that the business could retain and expand its competitive edge,” he adds.

The company’s existing set up was based on AS/400 machines and dumb terminals from IBM. Microsoft Windows NT ran across its network, while the showrooms Alfardan Automobiles had managed to connect were linked through digital data networking (DDN) lines.

However, the Alfardan Automobiles environment made real time data processing impossible. Instead, each showroom had to download its data to intermediary text files and these were then sent to the head office at the end of day.

“At the close of business an end of day procedure was done where we downloaded all of the transactions from the front desk to a text file. This was then uploaded into the back office. Because it was an end of day process, we couldn’t tell where the business was during the day,” explains Kattan. “The technology that we were using was not up to the mark. The networking, the AS/400 and the applications we were using could not help us move forward. Also, on the user level, we didn’t have the reporting or security features that we needed,” he adds.

BMW has, to a certain extent, forced Alfardan Automobiles to upgrade its systems as the car manufacturer has increased the amount of IT used within its vehicles and its direct business reporting and performance measurement systems. For example, the new BMW 7 Series has a computer onboard that technicians link directly to the BMW network. “Therefore, we needed internet connectivity for all of the workshop staff,” says Kattan.

“BMW has also taken its training and personal development programme for sales staff and technicians online so all of the people working in both our showrooms and workshops needed to be online to access the BMW Academy,” he adds.

However, providing an individual internet connection for each of the company’s business locations was impractical due to the costs involved. To overcome this, Alfardan Automobiles decided to connect its head office to the local ISP and provide internet access to its other locations over its network. This plan necessitated a network upgrade that saw the company switch to Ethernet. Cross location internet access is achieved by cross-routing the network using Microsoft ISA and a series of Catalyst 1700 switches and 2600 routers from Cisco.

“We used Cisco routers to connect the showrooms to the workshop and we provide internet access through the network. We did this because internet connections are not cheap. We were concerned that it might not perform to our standards, but it is actually working fine,” says Kattan.

Although the network currently runs at 64 K/bits/s, Kattan is planning to upgrade to 128K/bits/s as soon as Qatar’s telecommunications provider, Q-Tel, offers it. However, he says that 64K/bits/s is sufficient because currently the network only has to handle internal e-mails, internet access and data traffic from the company’s workshop and showrooms

Connecting its various locations together over the internet has allowed Alfardan to process its data in real time. Rather than having to wait until the end of the day to establish how much business has been done, senior management are now able to access data on the fly.

“The new system saves us a considerable amount of time. You just have to look at the end of day process to see how much. Rather than waiting a day for our information, we are able to get our numbers immediately. We are able to see the position of our business at any point in time,” he says.

“It also improves the company’s information sharing between our different branches, as internal mail and documents can be transferred easily,” he adds.

Providing internet and e-mail access to the company’s entire workforce has also improved communication levels within the company. “It has made communications faster and more reliable. It also allows us to keep up with the latest training, which will improve the knowledge of our employees and allow them to do a better job,” says Kattan.

The BMW agency has also upgraded from Windows NT to Windows 2000. The decision to stay with Microsoft products was an easy one, says Kattan. “The network between the workshop and the two showrooms was based on Windows NT. Therefore, Windows 2000 was a logical choice,” he explains.

||**|||~||~||~|Moving to Windows 2000 has delivered a number of benefits to Alfardan Automobiles. Not only does it provide more flexibility and security, but it also eases IT management headaches.

“Reducing network management was one of the major reasons for upgrading. We have three networks linked together with different departments, so we needed [an operating system] that could manage the whole network. Windows 2000 makes this management much easier, which in turn helps reduce costs,” says Kattan.

In addition to relieving management headaches, Windows 2000 has also helped the company boost its systems integrity as the IT department can create user profiles to limit the information certain employees can access.

At the same time as upgrading from Windows NT to Windows 2000, Alfardan Automobiles overhauled its hardware by replacing its AS/400 servers with a RS/6000 44P Model 270 server and three x220 PC servers from IBM.

The dumb terminals that accessed the AS/400 through Client Access Express have also been replaced with PCs. Although the company’s core applications are held centrally, the company has not opted to use Terminal Server to deliver client applications to the PCs. Eventually Kattan intends to upgrade the PCs to Windows XP, which he says “will give us more security and make the PCs more user friendly.”

The deployment of PCs to replace the company’s dumb terminals meant that Alfardan Automobiles workforce had to be re-skilled. This has been done through a series of in house workshops and one-to-one training sessions.

“There are certain things that are done by us and other things that we send people to New Horizons for. If it is custom training for BMW then we send them [the employees] to Dubai,” explains Kattan.

Although the showrooms use BMW’s proprietary application heavily, Kattan says the company’s desktop applications are also important and well used. The reason for this is that Alfardan Automobiles also handles Land Rover, Ferrari and Maserati, none of which have their own specialised applications.

Furthermore, the company uses Excel to generate reports. Information from the BMW system, or the company’s SQL database, is downloaded into the application where the business users manipulate it.

“This enables us to generate the management reports that allow us to see the position of our business and plan for the future,” says Kattan. “It is important to be able to generate reports as it helps us with our business planning and our forecasting,” he adds.

Although Kattan is unsure how long it will take Alfardan Automobiles to recover its software investment, he believes the return on investment (ROI) cycle for the network and hardware side will be short. Furthermore, he says the technology overhaul is already proving worthwhile, “because we have improved our business processes and this has a direct effect on our bottom line.”||**||

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