Volume 35, Number 8, August 2000

SOFTWARE GUIDE

Application Service Providers

The Next Big Wave in Computerization for the Glass Industry

by Tom Carpenter

 

Tired of doing your nightly backups? Of the system going down or locking up? Of new computers becoming obsolete before you’re done paying for them? Are you concerned about how as high-tech gets higher so do the techie’s salaries?

If you answered yes, to even one of the above questions, don’t buy any new computers! Just plug yourself into an Application Service Provider (ASP).

Now that we are living in a wired world, the newest business computing model is to concentrate the functions of the server at large professional server firms. Consequently, all you, as a business user of the program, have to be concerned with is using the program. The extension of Internet Service Provider (ISP) to ASP is a very natural one that has been building momentum in many vertical business markets, including the glass industry.

Not only does it remove the burden of maintaining the nuts and bolts of a computer system, it adds the benefits of getting more and more connected. The Net is rapidly becoming one giant network where you can look up or post information or carry on a transaction with your customers, suppliers and trading partners. This opens up all kinds of exciting and productivity-enhancing opportunities for the glass industry.

 

Visions for the Future

Flat glass retailers will be able to perform time-saving steps, such as:

1. Get quotes from wholesale suppliers, while preparing a quote for retail customers;

2. Check current pricing with vendors;

3. Enter an order into a purchase order system and transfer it directly to the supplier’s order entry system.

 

Distributor/fabricators will be able to:

 1. Receive orders from customers, directly into the order-entry system, saving huge amounts of order-entry time and eliminating possible order-entry errors;

2. Allow customers to log in to their system to calculate personal quotes, including complex fabricated items, and saving you the time and effort of doing this over the phone or fax;

3. Both will automatically give each customer his or her correct price without allowing him or her to see someone else’s price;

4. Instantly check price and availability with suppliers and transfer data from your purchasing system to the supplier’s order entry system.

Making ASP a Reality

You will be able to do all of these things right from the same screen—without making any phone calls, printing out any forms, sending any faxes, or getting up from your desk. Also, this will all happen without using additional modem phone lines—it all occurs over one full-time connection to the network. How are you able to do all this and what sort of systems and software makes all this possible? Without getting too technical, I will try to explain how this all works and what some of your options are.

First of all, there are actually several networks available. Most people think of the Internet as the net, and indeed that’s one of them. But, there are also private networks available from AT&T, MCI, Sprint, Quest and others. These private networks use essentially the same technology as the Internet, but they are secure – and not connected directly to the Internet, and not as susceptible to problems. We’re talking about how your data gets to and from the ASP and on to everyone else with whom you need to connect. Depending on how many users are at each location, how much bandwidth you need and what your cost trade-offs are, these various data communication modes can be used together and can be adjusted to your needs. A single-user shop might use an inexpensive, dial-up line to a local ISP, while a medium-size office with say, six to 20 or so users might use a 56K frame relay line (private network). A large office with up to hundreds of users might use a so-called “T-1” line that is the equivalent of a couple dozen 56K digital lines.

At your business location, you still need your workstations, of course. These could be PC’s, network terminals, or even dumb terminals, depending on what the application requires. You will no longer need a main computer or server. If you want to use PC’s, they all need to be connected via Ethernet cards, cables and hubs, to a device called a router, which in turn connects to another modem-like device and the phone line. If you use dumb terminals, they all connect to a device called a terminal server, which connects to the phone line. A really slick new workstation these days is called a network terminal or thin client. These combine the best features of PC’s and dumb terminals. They have color screens (some can run Windows® applications), and have all of the networking software built in like a PC, but have no hard drive and no moving parts. Therefore, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is low.

In any case, that’s all you need on your end of the wire. And if you are a multi-location business, each of your branch offices has a similar setup and connection. Your wire connects you to the network. This is not an end-to-end dedicated connection to the computer at the ASP’s location. The way data moves through the network is very much like a letter moving through the postal system. Your router neatly stuffs every few pages of data into an envelope and applies an address on the outside of it, including your return address. These data packets move across the network (at light speed) and are routed along the way by devices that look only at the address (not the contents) and send them on the best path to the destination.

Your data comes into the computer at your ASP’s location, just as easily as if the computer were in the next room. All the hassles of computer ownership have been passed back to the professional organization that handles this and only this. At a good ASP, your computer (and your data) will be much more secure and reliable than it could ever be in your own building. Typically, the servers at the ASPs are fully redundant, which means if any one hard drive crashes, absolutely no data nor time is lost. All data is stored on at least two hard drives, and if one goes out, it can be replaced, and the new one started up—all while the system continues to operate. This is called hot swapping.

A good ASP also has full power protection and disaster recovery methods that are akin to what a broadcast station or hospital would have. So in the event of a power outage, for instance, a generator automatically kicks in, and there is no down time. You wouldn’t even know that the city where your ASP resides had a power outage. Your workstations, programs and data just keep humming along.

And now the best part ... Not only do you not have to tend to the computer, you don’t have to pay for it either! You might own your workstations (PC’s and terminals), but you don’t have to incur any of the high up-front costs for a server, the rather expensive communications devices (routers), and the software, which can be the most expensive part. Essentially, you rent the use of these items, rather than owning them. The main advantage of this, obviously, is the greatly reduced start-up costs of getting into a new system. Additionally, all costs for maintenance and upgrades are borne by the ASP. And finally, your cost of running the system will be much lower. The largest cost savings, in fact, is in people time (translate: salaries you pay).

The visions information is still a little bit in the future – but the very near future. However, ASP is happening now, and it is the ticket to the future. As with most things having to do with computers and technology in general, it just keeps getting better, faster and cheaper. Using computers, and especially using the programs designed specifically for the glass industry, will improve your productivity greatly, while easily paying for itself. Doing this online with an ASP rather than in house will make it even better.


USG

© Copyright 2000 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.