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Sighting LAN.

Sighting LAN

Pros and cons to guide your course.

Is your staff playing "sneakernet," constantly trading floppy disks to share data? Is your minicomputer outdated and uneconomical? Are you tired of printing out copy after copy of membership and accounting records from separate systems--all so you can compare and update information?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, a local area network, or LAN, may be for you. As their memberships grow and member services expand, many associations are successfully managing information with LANs, which link microcomputers or personal computers (PCs) so that they can share printers, disk drives, software, and data. In its simplest form, a LAN consists of * several workstations, or PCs; * network boards, which allow PCs to be linked together; * network software that links the network parts (the most common software is Novell Netware, Microsoft LAN Manager, and Banyan VINES); * a server, a microcomputer that runs the network software, thus managing the networking signals among workstations; * software that directs system functions, such as word processing and accounting; and * network peripherals, such as printers, which can be used by any or all connected workstations.

As technology changes and an organization becomes more sophisticated, a LAN can support additional components. A LAN can also be connected to other networks or, if necessary, to a large-scale computer system.

A big advantage of a LAN is that each workstation operates independently of the system's other computers. This is particularly beneficial for word processing, since in most associations many staff members create and edit documents simultaneously. By functioning as separate computer systems, there is no need to share the processing power of a single central system. This sharing, characteristic of larger-scale systems, can result in processing slowdowns when too many users work at the same time.

Centralized data for easy access

Among the most basic reasons an association selects a LAN is to consolidate assorted information so that it can be shared by many individuals without the continual exchange of floppy disks. Accounting and conference planning, for example, work well on a LAN because these functions regularly require two or more employees to update information or perform other tasks simultaneously on a single data base.

To effectively centralize its financial records, the Humane Society of the U.S., Washington, D.C., installed a LAN-based accounting system about three years ago. Now data about the society's 1.5 million members can be updated regularly and retrieved frequently by the accounting department's six staff members.

The Humane Society's LAN comprises IBM-compatible hardware, Novell Netware, and Solomon III accounting software. Currently, the system maintains the general ledger as well as accounts payable, accounts receivable, and fixed assets for the society's national headquarters and 11 other offices. In addition, payroll records for the society's 140 staff are maintained on the LAN.

Until the Humane Society installed the LAN, its accounting records were not centrally shared. The accounting department was forced to print out information when needed by other departments. The society's use of a LAN allows anyone with a legitimate interest in reviewing certain accounting records to do so at any time.

In addition to convenient access to financial data, the ability to share data enables the new system to process information immediately. Before the LAN installation, the daily change in the organization's financial picture could not be reflected until the end of the month, when all expenditures and receivables were calculated.

According to the Humane Society, the figures and records the staff inputs during each business day can now be processed and aggregated overnight for a daily financial statement.

More uses for a LAN

A LAN can operate within a single department or link information among several designated areas. What matters most in deciding the range and extent of any LAN is whether such coordination among employees and/or departments is efficient and cost-effective.

In some cases, it pays for separate departments to share a system. The Society of the Plastics Industry, Washington, D.C., with 140 staff and about 2,300 members, switched from a 36-minicomputer IBM system to an association-wide LAN.

SPI Controller Paul Aines based the decision to connect his accounting system to the association's LAN on economics. The manufacturer of the accounting software SPI used on the minicomputer determined the product was outdated and decided to no longer support it.

To continue operations on a minicomputer, Aines's department would have had to convert to an updated software package, which along with extra hardware would have cost at least $150,000, plus $15,000 annually for software maintenance.

A LAN already linked several other SPI departments, so Aines converted to a LAN-based accounting program at one third the cost of installing new minicomputer software. SPI's LAN comprises nearly 100 stand-alone IBM-compatible and Macintosh PCs, with Novell software.

In addition to its accounting and word processing work, SPI maintains personnel histories and conference and seminar planning information on its LAN. SPI's LAN also enables the association to produce a monthly newsletter on a desktop publishing system, using the Macintosh computers SPI owned before the LAN installation.

Not the panacea

Despite the benefits of LANs, there are drawbacks, particularly for associations with large memberships. While some associations process their membership records on a PC-based LAN, others that perform multiple uses with their data bases can find this task decreases the speed and efficiency of the system.

Whether an association has several hundred or several thousand members is not the critical factor. In fact, many organizations with extremely large memberships maintain their records on a PC-based LAN.

Problems are more likely to arise, however, when an association manipulates and sorts that data in a variety of ways: One person inputs dues records, another maintains subscription information, another plans an upcoming conference, and still another develops a target marketing program--all with the same data base. Processing slowdowns can occur when all of these functions are performed at the same time.

As an alternative to a LAN, many organizations successfully use minicomputers, which contain larger memory capacity and sorting power than a PC-based LAN. Minicomputers and mainframes are fundamentally different from LANs. Typically, a minicomputer processes all information from a single, central computer rather than independent PCs. Users are connected to the minicomputer by terminals, often called "dumb" terminals because they merely receive information and do not actually compute data.

Best of both worlds

Large associations with extensive membership data and services can overcome these drawbacks by connecting a LAN that performs word processing, some accounting, and even conference planning functions to a minicomputer that handles membership.

To provide the highest level of service to its 15,000 members, two years ago the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison, launched a search to find proven software that could adequately process and manage its data base expediently and efficiently. Given its large membership and variety of services, the Wisconsin Bar opted for Design Data Systems software, a minicomputer-based program, to handle its data processing needs. The state bar has since installed a Unix-based Data General minicomputer. Currently, 64 staff members can access the system.

Because of its larger memory capacity and sorting power, the minicomputer handles the following services better than a LAN: processing membership dues and accounts payable and receivable; maintaining general ledgers; processing product orders; coordinating conferences and meetings; maintaining publication subscriber information; and managing a lawyer referral service.

"Our decision to go to the minicomputer-based system for our data processing needs was made because we could not find proven PC-based software at that time that would enable us to provide our services effectively," says Art M. Saffran, computer services director.

But while the association's data base requires a powerful system, the state bar also runs a LAN for word processing, spreadsheet compilation, statistical analysis, and desktop publishing.

The state bar's LAN and minicomputer are linked together so that users can transfer from PC-based to minicomputer-based functions from the same workstation. "We have the best of both worlds," says Saffran. "We have the advantages of a minicomputer, which was designed as a multi-user system for data processing. At the same time, from the same workstations, we have the flexibility that comes with personal computers. This system allows us to provide more personalized, efficient service to our members.

"With this system, we can now maintain comprehensive membership profiles, so we can match our services to a member's special interests within the legal profession," adds Saffran. "Based on a member's prior activities within the state bar, we can advise him or her of upcoming conferences, literature, and other programs relevant to an individual's particular needs."

Assessing the alternatives

Maintaining a minicomputer and a PC-based LAN definitely increases an organization's data processing complexity. But for some associations, using a minicomputer as a LAN server can provide a powerful yet economical solution for processing a large data base.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Washington, D.C., is currently upgrading its hardware and software. CASE plans to increase its data base to include more complete and accurate information about its 25,000 members.

"Because of our large membership, we're going to continue to need a large computer," says Julie England, CASE senior vice president for finance and administration. "We don't have enough PCs to make a PC-based LAN cost-effective for us. As an alternative, we'll add to our current system."

Craig Matusek, CASE director of data processing, adds, "A purely PC-based network does not provide us with the speed, data sharing, or communication facilities that CASE needs to manage now."

Matusek cites two other reasons for upgrading the existing Digital VAX minicomputer system. "A switch to a radically different system would cause considerable disruption as well as a great initial expense. We have opted instead to migrate to a segmented LAN--integrating terminals, PCs, and minicomputers, which will all work together."

Weighing the options

Determining whether your organization would benefit most by a LAN, a minicomputer, or a combination of both requires research, analysis, and planning. The process should involve all key managers who can identify current inefficiencies and project future requirements.

Before you decide on any one computer system for your organization, ask: What inefficiencies does the current system present? Are data often shared by two staff members, a group of employees, or an entire organization? If so, how many different functions will these people perform with the information? How many ways will they use the information?

If, for example, your organization's membership data base consists of fewer than 15,000 names, chances are good than a LAN could provide easy access to and flexibility with such information. But if your organization exceeds 15,000 member entries and several of your departments rely on these records simultaneously, you might want to consider other alternatives, such as a minicomputer, to handle this data.

Of course the deciding factor will depend on the answer to this question: What is the most effective way to serve your association's membership?

Jonathan Wallman is a principal in the Washington, D.C., office of Grant Thornton, a national accounting and management consulting firm. For more information on related topics or ASAE's Finance and Administration Section, call Wayne Miller at (202) 626-2781.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article; local area network
Author:Wallman, Jonathan
Publication:Association Management
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:The dialogue process.
Next Article:ASAE software vendor directory.

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