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Pacific Gas links customers, competitors to enterprise network.

Pacific Gas Transmission--the largest natural gas pipeline company west of the Rockies--is giving its customers, competitors and suppliers new access to its corporate databases. The purpose: to speed end-to-end planning associated with moving some 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually across the country.

For the first time, PGT's new bulletin board service gives everyone equally direct access to capacity and reservation information, and marks the beginning of an electronic market mechanism for natural gas supplies.

This streamlaines customers' administrative planning by allowing them to reserve, book space and release already committed space on natural gas pipelines that stretech from Canada through Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. They dial into an 800 number, communicating at speeds of up to 57.6 kb/s.

"We're supporting 64 lines coming into the bulletin board," says Larry Levitt, manager of computer services for PGT, headquartered in San Francisco. ? About 30 or 40 users are typically on-line at a time. Users include about 200 producers of natural gas, and 250 potential customers, known as shippers.

"The bulletin board is also accessed by our five major competitors, who can review how much capacity we have available. And, of course, the federal regulatory agency also has access. In fact, we can't exclude anyone from having access, as long as they have a legitimate purpose."

The bulletin board is based on fairly simple and inexpensive technology. It runs on a single 486-based Compaq Computer SystemPro single processor server on a Novell SFT III network. The bulletin board software, The Bread Board System (TBBS), from eSoft Inc., of Aurora, Colo., runs under DOS. It's linked to a customized database application developed with dBASE III that includes a color graphical interface with drop-down menus and pop-up lists.

The cost, including application development, was about $400,000.

"The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required every utility to create a bulletin board service by the end of 1993," says Levitt. "Some put up multi-million-dollar mainframes. Our strategy was to see how much functionality we could cram into a PC-based architecture that was compatible with our overall enterprise technology goals."

Aftger investigating client/server architecture, Levitt concluded that comparable functionality would have cost nearly $750,000. PGT's system integrator, International Micronet Systems (IMS) of San Francisco, designed the network and hardware solution. The Novell Platinum integrator had also designed the WAN installed two years earlier, which now incorporates 20 LAN networks. Hamamersly Technology, of San Francisco, designed and implemented the application system.

"IMS gave us a pool of expertise that allowed us to respond quickly to changing requirements," says Levitt "It would have been prohibitively expensive to maintain that level of skill in-house."

"The bulletin board is part of PGT's long-term corporate strategy to provide information to those who need it, regardless of where it resides," says Stephen Yap, the network engineer who supervised this project. "We complemented PGT's resources by recommending the hardware configuration and ensuring that the bulletin board would communicate with other servers on the network, including an IBM AS/400 in San Francisco, and a dedicated reservations server in Spokane."

Transactions are communicated across the WAN, to the Spokane server, via Novell IPX/SPX. IMS recommended using SPX to ensure delivery, because it automatically resends packets until receipt is acknowledged.

They also developed a Lotus Notes-based database for PGT's bulletin board help desk. Notes' design is ideal for distributing information among diverse work groups; the support application allows PGT's help desk staff to readily track users' requests for technical assistance, and to pool information for quick problem resolution.

In the next year, Levitt anticipates significant expansion of the bulletin board service as users become accustomed to booking their own space.

"Bulletin boards are far better suited to electronic commerce than Electronic Data Interchange," says Levitt. "Our customers want to know what's been bid, and what capacity is available. A bulletin board lets you quickly see the results of your transaction--you don't have to wait for hours, like you do with EDI."
COPYRIGHT 1994 Nelson Publishing
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Title Annotation:Pacific Gas Transmission Co. provides access to databases
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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