is a leading integrated logistics provider with a client
roster comprising Indian and international corporate
heavyweights. This Indian company has partnerships with
multinationals like DHL, Western Union, and Carlson
& Wagonlit Travels. It provides integrated supply
chain management services, including consulting and
operations, in addition to focused business units providing
express/courier, cargo, distribution, warehousing and
e-fulfillment services, among others.
The various divisions of AFL are spread across the country
and are connected by one of the largest terrestrial
networks linking 85 - 90 locations. This number is expected
to increase to 125 - 130 locations in the near future.
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over 200 interconnected offices and service centers
spread across the country, and around 3,500 employees,
AFL is all about masterminding movement; movement that
requires a high degree of expertise in prompt response,
quality service and the latest in infrastructure and
technology to support this expertise.
As part of its IS Strategy, AFL successfully implemented
Oracle Financials 11i across the country in the year
2001. AFL has also taken up development of business
applications for its cargo and logistics businesses,
part of which has already gone live.
instance Warehouse and International Cargo modules are
operational. Another application called Package Express
is under user acceptance tests. These applications are
being developed in-house, jointly by AFL's Infotech
arm (a 100 percent subsidiary of AFL) and PWC (Price
AFL Infotech also provides specialized packages for
the transportation sector. The division develops tailor-made
software packages for other players in similar businesses
like freight forwarding, cargo, express and airlines.
Since AFL is switching to centralized applications (from
a distributed computing environment), it felt the need
for a more reliable network. This requirement was fulfilled
using mixed media: leased lines, optical fiber, dialup
lines and ISDN. There are some locations where ISDN
is used as a backup to leased lines, while in other
locations ISDN is a primary link itself.
AFL is an integrated logistics provider that
services Indian and international clients.
It provides integrated supply chain management
services, including consulting and operations,
in addition to focused business units providing
Express/Courier, Cargo, Distribution, Warehousing
and E-fulfillment services.
AFL's four divisions are spread across the
country and since it is centralizing its operations
it needed reliable connectivity between all
A network that connects 85 - 90 locations
using a mix of media: leased lines, optical
fiber, dialup lines and ISDN. AFL also felt
the need to centralize its business operations
and had to adapt its network for centralized
Moving from a distributed computing environment
to a centralized environment has improved
the speed of transactions. All transactions
now occur online in real time. Since data
that's captured from various locations is
immediately stored on a central server,
there is more accuracy in tracking consignments.
Customers can also track these movements
through a website.
The centralized approach also gives management
a perspective of business on a day-to-day
basis, as MIS reports can be generated on
At present, AFL's legacy applications run at their respective
locations/regions and the data is sent to headquarters
in Mumbai at periodic intervals for consolidation. The
transactions are collated on a central server in batch
mode at the end of the day.
the new applications (Warehouse, International Cargo,
and Package Express) go live, all transactions will
be processed online centrally, at the headquarters in
Mumbai, over the private network. This will happen on
a real-time basis.
to complete centralization of the new business applications,
the legacy regional servers and applications will cease
to function. Also, customer orders received from any
part of the country will be immediately recorded on
the central server. "The most important benefit
of this application is that data is captured online
at every location en route, when a consignment moves
from the source location to the destination location,
thereby accurately keeping track of the movement status,"
says Vinod Kamat, Group Manager, Technical Services,
AFL Private Ltd.
will also enable customers to track the status of their
consignment via the Web. Customers can use a standard
Web browser to log in to the e-track-and-trace facility
and keep a continuous track without the need for human
intervention. One just needs a unique order number,
issued by AFL, corresponding to his consignment booking.
centralized approach also gives management a perspective
of the business on a day-to-day basis (it will offer
MIS reports on demand). At present there is considerable
delay for MIS information to arrive at headquarters
from all the locations for consolidation.
AFL is also in the process of upgrading its network
in order to enhance the performance desired for centralized
processing. It is in the process of adding new servers,
primary storage and backup systems. To minimize network
latency, it is considering high-end Vanguard routers
the headquarters, AFL has deployed HP-9000 series servers.
These servers are hosting the centralized applications.
There are plans to implement HP's MC ServiceGuard clustering
solution to provide close to 100 percent system availability.
The legacy systems are entry-level server class systems
running SCO Unix. "We found these systems to be
inherently slow," says Kamat. "The new applications
are operational on HP Unix 11i Operating System with
Oracle 8i as the back-end database and Web Logic as
the Application Server. The user front end is Web based.
The HP 9000 servers can offer significantly higher performance
in the range of 25000 tpm (transactions per minute).
The primary storage system used is HP's FC 60 with a
capacity for 2 TB of data. These systems were chosen
as they are easily scalable and can be expanded as business
grows in future.
AFL recently upgraded its LAN infrastructure from shared
10 Mbps Ethernet to switched Gigabit Ethernet in order
to offer best network performance required for new mission
critical business applications.
The LAN network is also designed with adequate redundancy,
in order to provide very high availability. Nortel's
Acelar 8600 and Passport 450T are deployed in this network
as core and edge switches respectively. Several Virtual
LANs based on specific function groups are configured
in this network.
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AFL's network is built around a hub and spoke architecture.
The metro locations act as hubs where the links from
the remote locations, within close proximity, converge.
These may be inter-city or intra-city locations. The
five major hub locations (at Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta,
Chennai, Bangalore) are linked through mesh connectivity,
thereby providing multiple redundant paths for the data
to reach the central server at the Mumbai H.O. AFL plans
to add two more hubs (at Hyderabad and Ahmedabad) in
the near future.
lines connect the hub locations and the bandwidth for
these ranges from 64/128 Kbps to 2 Mbps (depending on
the traffic generated from each of the locations). At
the moment there is a collective bandwidth of 384 Kbps
between any two hub locations.
The uptime of the connectivity in the backbone is maintained
close to 99.8 percent by virtue of providing ISDN lines
as dynamic backup. Certain critical remote locations
are also provided with ISDN backup links.
AFL has also deployed some Line Of Sight (LOS) Radio
Frequency (RF) links (these are point-to-point or point-to-multi-point
links) for intra-city connectivity. This RF technology
works in the 2.4 Ghz frequency spectrum and are very
links offer high availability and high bandwidth at
a much lower cost than that incurred for leased-lines
when one requires multiples of 64 Kbps bandwidth,"
AFL understands that the RF link will under-perform
if there's a "fading effect" due to heavy
rains or equipment failure. But they believe there is
a very small probability of equipment failure. As a
result the link availability is expected to be very
The underlying communication protocols implemented are
TCP/IP for LAN and Frame Relay for WAN. For routing,
AFL opted for the OSPF (Open Shortest Path First) protocol
instead of RIP (Routing Information Protocol). "We
chose OSPF because it allows dynamic selection of the
most optimum path for the data traffic to reach the
final destination," says Kamat.
Frame Relay was chosen over IP for voice communication.
"It offers the advantage of optimized bandwidth
and excellent voice quality," says Kamat.
Explains Kamat: Frame Relay operates at Layer 2 (of
the OSI model) and hence minimizes the latency for voice
communication as compared to voice over IP which operates
at Layer 3. Further, the protocol overhead itself is
higher in the case of IP than that of Frame Relay. This
is primarily due to the fact that in Frame Relay the
fields/octets related to the functions such as error
correction are not present, as such functions are the
responsibility of intelligent end systems. However the
transmission media must be reliable/error-free else
the retransmission overhead will be more which would
render Frame Relay unsuitable for toll quality voice.
The Frame Relay protocol does detect packets with errors
and simply drops them instead of correcting and
For business communications AFL uses Lotus Notes. The
design of this email implementation is unique in the
sense that the Lotus Domino R5 mail server is operational
on both NT (IBM Netfinity 5100 servers) and Unix (HP
D class servers) platforms. There are 18 mail servers
installed in different cities of which 12 run on Windows
NT and the remaining six run on the Unix platform.
integration of two different platforms was very critical
in this implementation," says Kamat. "The
objective of having two different platforms in this
set was to protect the existing investment in the HP
The number of clients is expected to grow from existing
800 to 1200 in the near future. AFL has plans to fully
exploit the workflow application capabilities of Lotus
Notes in order to implement business support functions.
AFL has implemented elaborate multi-layer network security
architecture in order to protect its business-critical
resources from external attacks. The basic firewall
is the latest New Generation (NG) Check Point system.
At some remote locations, customers and business partners
connect to the central server using a browser interface
over the Internet. AFL has implemented triple DES VPN
(Virtual Private Network) security for securing data
transactions over the Internet. It is also exploring
the use of smart card security systems for e-commerce
transactions over the Internet in the future.
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AFL began designing and setting up its network in the
year 1995, with 25 to 30 locations. Kamat says one of
the main concerns while selecting solutions was voice
looked at products from Motorola, Cisco, and Nortel.
But opted for Motorola products because their implementation
of Frame Relay was standardized at that time; they offered
the best bandwidth optimization for voice in terms of
each voice call occupying minimum possible bandwidth,
i.e. 5.3 Kbps with toll quality voice."
Kamat agrees that by now things have changed and the
other vendor offerings now match the quality of Motorola
products. "But we continue to be with Motorola
products and Frame Relay technology for two reasons:
to maintain uniformity in network infrastructure across
locations in the country. Secondly, if we choose products
from other vendors, there will be issues of
interoperability, particularly on the voice front."
AFL worked with various solutions providers while building
and upgrading its network. Kamat feels the choice of
network solutions provider is generally based on the
product one selects and the relations the channel partner
(local product vendor) has with the OEMs. For Motorola
networking products, there is a single channel partner
(Convergent Communications) for both sales and service.
you select a channel partner you tend to go with the
product, meaning selection of product follows the service
provider unless multiple service providers offer the
same product," he says. "Of course when we
started 4-5 years back, the decision was based on the
product, i.e. Motorola (because of the toll quality
voice required)," he says.
We extended our relations with Convergent Communications
because of their inherent strong relations with the
OEM, and also because of their technical expertise.
Explains Kamat, "There will always be problems
with products that need to be addressed on priority.
Generally no product addresses all the needs of an organization
and a certain level of customization will be required.
So when we faced problems we could get solutions quickly
from Convergent and Motorola. And this was/is possible
because of their technical expertise as well as their
relations with the OEM."
After setting up its network, AFL had the choice of
managing its network infrastructure in-house or outsourcing
it. If it chose the former option, the company would
need to recruit additional IS personnel, train them
and send them to the regional sites/hub locations. This
would mean delays. The final decision was to partially
outsource the network management and support activity
in order to quickly get a well experienced and skilled
team on board.
criteria for choosing the Outsource Partner was a service
provider who best knows the product/technology and has
adequate presence/spread across country. The choice
of Convergent Communications was based on their technical
knowledge of the systems at AFL and their strong relations
with the OEM, Motorola."
Convergent Communications is directly supporting 14
+ 4 sites (14 dedicated engineers with full support
and four offer shared support). Other locations are
supported by a well experienced and technically skilled
Kamat says outsourcing in this manner offers certain
benefits. For one it offers flexibility: at some locations
the service provider (Convergent) gives AFL full support,
while at others it offers partial support. Further,
one can add or withdraw locations and hence deploy support
staff at very short notices.
Then there's the cost advantage too. The company does
not have to incur expenditure on in-house network professionals'
recruitment, training, incidental expenses etc.
Pereira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org