IT Management

St. Louis, MO-based UniGroup, Inc.’s mainframe deployment is a story about exploiting advanced technology to lower computing costs, overcoming internal politics, and modernizing an older, green- screen computing environment to centralize its mission-critical applications. By staying with its existing mainframe architecture, UniGroup has built a nimble, secure, highly integrated, well- managed information systems environment that provides a distinct competitive advantage over rival companies in the transportation and logistics field.

“Where we differ from our competitors,” says Randall Poppell, CIO at UniGroup, “is that we implement well-integrated technology capabilities that allow us to develop innovative solutions that meet the enterprise’s business needs.”

UniGroup is one of the largest privately owned transportation companies in the U.S., with revenues of $2 billion. It’s the parent company of united Van Lines and Mayflower Transit. UniGroup also supports operations for other subsidiaries such as Vanliner Group, a provider of specialized insurance coverage for movers; Total Transportation Services, Inc., a lessor/seller of vehicles and a provider of moving supplies; SAM (Store and Move), a portable moving and storage solution; and UniGroup Worldwide UTS, a global mobility management company.

Centralized vs. Distributed?

In 2003, UniGroup determined it was necessary to upgrade its aging COBOL-based, green-screen applications to more modern, graphically driven interfaces to back-end databases. As part of its application upgrade strategy, the company completely re-evaluated its information systems infrastructure. However, deciding on an architecture became a challenge; UniGroup’s information infrastructure group preferred a centralized mainframe architecture, while its development organization preferred a distributed systems architecture.

Throughout the ’90s and until 2003, UniGroup’s information systems environment consisted of a mainframe, several iSeries servers (now Power systems), and numerous Intel-based servers. The mainframe processed the majority of UniGroup’s transportation services transactions, while applications supporting corporate services and other subsidiaries ran on distributed iSeries and Intel-based servers.

In 2003, running Web-based applications on the mainframe was still relatively new. Developers, tasked with modernizing aging COBOL applications, argued that the development environment they needed would operate best in a distributed environment. External consultants also recommended a move to distributed computing. Meanwhile, the company’s infrastructure group lobbied to leverage the existing mainframe environment. To ensure the best platform option was chosen, the company conducted its own Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) study.

“The decision to transform business-critical legacy applications to a Web-based architecture was based on the expected improvements,” says Poppell. “And while the legacy environment had solid performance, availability and scalability, UniGroup needed more features and flexibility in the applications we envisioned for the future.” At the time, Web-based development processes, tools, and run-time environments on the mainframe were immature. Poppell challenged UniGroup’s infrastructure and development teams to assess how UniGroup could integrate all the key characteristics into a new application environment. After the completion of the TCO study, agreement was reached that the mainframe met or exceeded all the requirements.

UniGroup’s TCO Study

With some vendor input, UniGroup developed its own methodology for evaluating the differences between distributed and centralized architectures. As an end result, the company assembled a list and weighted the pros and cons of each architecture.

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