Trucking Along with the OS/400 Platform
June 5, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
“Modern technology is no longer optional in the trucking industry today,” according to Prime, an OS/400-based trucking company based in Springfield, Missouri. Anyone observing the high stakes and competitive nature of that industry would have to agree. A trucking company wouldn’t be successful for long without reliable, accurate, and real-time information communicated across a wide geographic area with moving targets (the trucks), and on-the-mark, 24×7 customer service. This takes a lot of information technology, obviously.
Some people, especially those not in the know about the OS/400 platform, might be surprised to learn that the core systems that collect and report the information in some of the trucking industry’s most successful companies are run on the AS/400. Yes, the AS/400. The IT staffs at the trucking companies I talked to do not usually say iSeries or System i5. They still say AS/400, although sometimes they slip and say iSeries.
Prime is one of those companies. A national carrier that initially specialized in refrigerated shipping, it now has a fleet that consists of 2,000+ reefer trucks, 500+ flatbed trucks, and 200+ tanker trucks, providing carrier, logistics, and brokering services to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller shippers. It operates major terminals in Springfield as well as in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; in Salt Lake City, Utah; in Miami, Florida; in Oxnard, California; and in Denver, Colorado. Prime has a lot of trucks and shipments to track, and many of those shipments are carrying perishables such as fresh flowers and food. Critical information regarding current shipment location and arrival time must be available both to the company and to its customers.
Prime programmer/analyst, Rick Minton, reports that the company initially installed a System/34 in 1982, migrating through the System/36 to the AS/400 in the early 1990s. It now has three iSeries boxes (which Minton calls “400s”): an 825 is the main production machine; a 720 serves as the backup and development machine; and a 270 serves as a Web server.
All of the company’s primary applications run on the iSeries, including order/manifest processing, fleet management, fleet maintenance, and the full set of financial and accounting software. While this software was acquired years ago from vendors, it was brought in-house, heavily customized, and is now completely maintained by Prime’s IT staff. (While no one wants to talk about this much, this has been the norm in the OS/400 market for two decades, thanks to the availability of source code for MRP and ERP applications.) Additional applications running on the iSeries include the important Qualcomm satellite communication system that is the information lifeline to the trucks and trailers. All drivers are equipped with keyboards and display screens for message transmittal. This communications link offers continuous load positioning for each truck, but it does a lot more too.
For example, Minton says security is one of Prime’s biggest concerns. “Using Qualcomm, we can determine the locations of the trucks, get warning messages when truck/trailers are unhooked, and be alerted if the truck goes off the specified route. These warning messages can be sent to either or both the dispatcher or our company security if it’s a high-value or haz-mat load.” A further use of the real-time communications is Prime’s ability to notify drivers of suggested fuel stops so they can get the best fuel prices. (If you think rising fuel prices are hitting your wallet, can you just imagine what they are doing to a company like Prime?)
In addition to the iSeries applications, Prime also has several Windows servers that run Microsoft Office as well as logging and imaging applications. All of this is managed with an IT staff of about 20, including eight AS/400 programmers, six PC support personnel, one Web site support person, and five operators.
Why does Minton believe that “the 400” is the best possible platform for the trucking industry? Reliability and up-time, says Minton. Prime is a 24×7 business, and the information about its trucks and shipments needs to be available at all times. “Our uptime is 99.99 percent,” he reports. In fact, in his tenure at the company, he can only recall one time when the system went down and the staff immediately switched over to the backup machine and resumed processing. For that reason, the company is fully committed to the platform. The only changes Prime is considering are the addition of more processing power and an eventual upgrade from OS/400 V5R2.
Beyond that, Minton doesn’t want to change a thing. “We get real-time information from our trucks back through the iSeries. We display it on the screens and our customers can go to our Web site and get real-time information about their loads. It’s a complete package for us, and it works.”
Equally committed to the OS/400 platform is Southwestern Motor Transport (SMT), based in San Antonio, Texas, a 75-year-old regional trucking firm that serves the eastern portion of the U.S. as well as offering service into Mexico and Canada. With approximately 1,000 employees, 500 trucks, 3,000 trailers, and about 40 terminal locations, SMT specializes in moving predominantly less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments. “Our biggest niche,” says Robert Bernal, SMT’s director of technology, “is moving shipments to and from Texas. No one can touch us on that.”
Like Prime, SMT’s history with the IBM midrange is a long one, starting with a System/3 in the early 1970s, and then moving to a System/34 and System/36, which was still there when Bernal joined the company in 1986. The company then went to an AS/400 in the early 1990s. Currently, SMT has two i5 520s: one has 3,300 CPW, and a second one for replication has 2,400 CPW. There is 16 GB of memory and 1.5 TB of disk capacity on each machine. Both are disaster recovery boxes with two-way replication and applications on both boxes. Both active at all times to allow better use of the CPWs.
With the exception of a few Windows servers and a Linux box, all of the company’s business applications run on the iSeries, including trucking systems from Ayers Rock Software, financial systems, payroll, Web service, Qualcomm satellite tracking, and dispatch optimization. Supporting the entire IT function is a staff of six, with one manager, one operator, two programmers, and two technical support people who handle the network and the peripherals.
It would be difficult to find someone more committed to the belief that nothing–absolutely nothing–can touch the iSeries and System i5 for business than Bernal. He points out the critical nature of real-time access to real-time information in the trucking industry. While customers care about prices in a highly cost-competitive industry, the need for service is also paramount. “From the customer’s point of view,” Bernal says, “it’s about service. It’s as simple as that. We need to know that we are getting product there on time, and customers wants to know when shipments will arrive at their doors. With the systems we have, the information that they get, either from our customer service department or from the Web, is real-time.”
In order to provide that information on a 24×7 basis, the systems need to be reliable, and no system can beat the iSeries for that, says Bernal, who boasts that since 1992, SMT’s unscheduled down time on the AS/400, running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is zero. He compares that with the company’s Windows servers, which have an uptime of about 80 to 85 percent. That percentage of uptime on Windows servers seems to be about average for the industry, Bernal believes, noting that he’s talked with and worked with many people who have Unix and Wintel systems. But those numbers would be disastrous for the trucking industry, he says. Nevertheless, when he reports to others outside the industry that SMT has a 14-year record of 100 percent uptime, others don’t believe him. “It’s part of their culture to be accustomed to the system going down. It’s the culture of their business.”
“The iSeries keeps us competitive,” Bernal says. “We deal with many Fortune 500 companies, and they marvel at our up time. We try to be the most reliable shipping company out there, but with the big guys, it’s about information. They want to know if we can get them the information they need. We are a link in their supply chain, and when they need to pass on information to someone else, it’s got to be accurate and timely, and we are able to give that to them because of the iSeries.”
Bernal says that others he talks with who are not familiar with the platform ask him what sort of security package he runs, and what database he’s purchased, and what type of processors he uses for front-end controllers. “I tell them it’s all on the 400. It’s all in the box.” When they ask him how one system can possibly run all that he responds, “I don’t know and I don’t care. I just does.”
For all of his praise for the OS/400 platform, Bernal does have one complaint–and it’s one you’ve heard before: IBM’s lack of marketing of the system. But he believes he understands why. IBM won’t sell it, he speculates, because it competes with other servers that result in more after-purchase revenue generation. xSeries or pSeries purchasers, he maintains, bring in lots of consulting dollars. However, the iSeries runs too well; IBM can make more service dollars from the other platforms.
SMT has no plans at all to change systems. Quite the contrary. In true Texas fashion, Bernal challenges: “As far as availability, reliability, and ease of use, no one can touch the iSeries. If tomorrow IBM said they were pulling the iSeries from the market, they’d have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”