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Case Study: Networked for Logistics Management
AFL moves to centralized applications

AFL 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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With 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.

For 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 Waterhouse Coopers).

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 locations.
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 computing applications.

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 demand.

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.

Once 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.

Subsequent 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.

This 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.

The 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 (MPR 7300).

At 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.

Leased 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 reliable.

"RF 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," says Kamat.

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 high.

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.

"The 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 Unix servers."

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 quality.

"We 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.

"When 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.

"The 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 in-house team.

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.

Brian Pereira can be reached at

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