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Coping with a network explosion.

COPING WIT A NETWORK EXPLOSION

Our biggest challenge, as a company whose size has more than doubled in the past five years through growth and acquisition, has been to consolidate resources and take advantage of economies of scale.

Since we depend on telecommuunications for services to our customers, our network environment in particular had to evolve and expand.

As the networks became more complex, ways of managing them effectively became crucial.

New ways were needed to reduce costs and give more customers better and faster services.

Comdata provides:

* funds-transfer, fuel-purchase, cash-advance, permit, and legalization services for the trucking industry;

* cash-advance services for the leisure/gaming industry;

* check-authorization, check-guarantee, and collection services primarily for supermarket and grocery chains;

* and telecommunications billing services for clients in all markets we serve.

These services are provided primarily through the use of "Comcheks," a form of payment recognized at more than 20,000 locations.

Less than five years ago, all of our transactions were handled by an "army" of operators working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The transactions, coming in on in-bound WATS lines, were keypunched into IBM 3278 terminals.

As the customer base grew, so did the number of transactions.

The telephone bills got higher, while the level of service started to drop.

The "personalized" service could not effectively keep up with the demand.

POS Innovation

This resulted in introduction of point-of-scale devices.

Using POS devices, a trucker at a truck stop can enter his or her transactions and transmit them via dial-up phone line to Comdatahs computer center, which is located in Nashville, Tenn.

That telephone call was answered by a network of personal computers, the information edited and formatted as an IBM CICS (Customer Information and Control System) application transaction.

The transaction was sent through a protocol converter to the mainframe supporting our CICS applications.

A response was generated, and the appropriate information was then transmitted through the PC to the original POS device.

This process took a tenth the time an operator-assisted call would have taken.

As the customers base grew, however, additional solutions were needed.

When the PC configuration was established, communications technology had not yet advanced to special-purpose products for integration.

For protocol conversion, we used low-end minicomputers with specially designed communications software.

As the number of transactions on the POS network kept increasing, so did the number of PCs and minicomputers.

With the number of PCs approaching 110 and the number of minicomputers approaching 10, problems began to surface.

A major difficulty was the inability of the mincomputers to offer any network-management capabilities.

Need More Management

A second difficulty was the limited flexibility of the minicomputers. Changes to their function or configuration were beyond the expertise of our inhouse staff and required expensive contracting-out.

The lack of network-management functions on the minicomputers minicomputers prevented our Network Operations staff from defining the true nature of their data traffic.

They had relied on telecommunications reports to estimate:

* traffic volume,

* peak traffic periods,

* transmission errors,

* and other variables.

Without such critical information, Comdata was unable to accurately diagnose problems on the network.

Consequently, we could not operate at an optimal level of efficiency.

As the volume of business continued to increase, it became more and more apparent that adding more minicomputers was not going to be the best solution.

We contacted Jupiter Technology Inc.

We decided to use their network protocol servers to replace the PCs and minicomputers for a more powerful and flexible approach to solving the problem.

The serverhs high-performance modular hardware architecture is based on microprocessor technology.

ITs operating system, called Softlink, allows data-communications software modules to be easily linked together into any configuration.

The modules perform functions such as:

* protocol conversion,

* multiplexing

* port contention,

* and data-PBXing.

Initial testing of the Jupiter network protocol server resulted in reduction of almost 2 seconds per transaction.

Multiply this by 2 million transactions a month, and you can see hw our savings in telecommunication costs alone paid for the servers in less than two years.

Stay Flexible

Shortened transactions time allow more calls to be handled in the same time.

With training by Jupiter, our network team learned to work with the server's Softlink software modules.

We were able to develop and implement unique solutions to manage our particular business problems.

By programming the server's Softlink operating system, we could now create toosl to manage our networking environment.

This gave us the ability to plan and control some of our growth path.

In addition to the point-of-sale system, many service offerings come through a call center and a voice-response system.

As we evolve our communications systems to better help our customers, we believe we eill be able to give them the best available service by continuing to keep flexible options.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rowland, Bruce
Publication:Communications News
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Words:792
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