By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2005-01-13 Print this article Print

The $2.4 billion cleaning and maintenance service gave its window washers, janitors and engineers a single way of doing business with customers. But selling all of its services at the same time is still elusive.

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When 'Dumb' Is Smart

Huff led the project that would give ABM a clean start. In mid-1998, ABM engaged Cambridge Technology Partners to analyze its operations and determine if all its disparate businesses could in fact operate off a common software base. The answers from the consultant's three-month study: Yes, the company could operate on a single platform. And, yes, it would have to be a new platform.

Next came a bake-off between three contenders to supply that platform: J.D. Edwards; PeopleSoft, which had a competing product at the time; and Lawson Software.

J.D. Edwards won, Lackey says, because it had superior functions for measuring the costs of the jobs the company would perform for its customers, and for billing. And even though ABM had many different businesses, adopting J.D. Edwards companywide would force the least amount of change. "It all boiled down to how close a fit the vanilla product was," Lackey says.

Meanwhile, in preparation for Year 2000, ABM took stock of the equipment it put on managers' and workers' desks. Scores of servers as well as 1,850 personal computers were spread across its operations all over the country. Nine out of 10 systems needed an upgrade of the operating system, or a processor upgrade, or other improvement.

The cost to upgrade would work out to between $200 and $400 per machine, Lackey's technology staff figured. But the real cost would be in communications. Keeping personal computers at each office building where ABM had operations would mean deploying a $5,000 server, and spending $1,800 a month on a connection that would send and receive 512,000 characters of information each second.

A less-expensive alternative? What sometimes are called "dumb" terminals: Desktop screens with just enough smarts to receive information from central servers and display information on screen. All number and word crunching would take place at a company data center.

The approach fit the company's low-tech workforce well. Janitors and lighting repair people don't really need a lot of computing power at their fingertips. Or if they do, they don't care whether the processing power is actually on site or remote, as long as they can see results on the screen in front of them.

So Finley would lead the effort to replace the great majority of ABM's personal computers with Citrix terminals. The displays would cost just $450 each. Right away, communications costs could drop to $900 a month per office. In a year or two, as digital phone lines proliferated, Lackey expected the cost could drop to $400 a month.

Those were pretty compelling direct savings. But even more important, the change in infrastructure meant that only one set of software—at the company's data center in the San Francisco Bay area—would have to be updated as time went by. Neither managers of local offices nor employees would have to worry about installing any applications on servers or desktops, because there wouldn't be any hard drives to store or run applications. Only a few exceptions, like salesmen who needed to use laptop computers on the move, would be able to store any information or software on their personal machines.

This was a momentous choice. "If we had gone to the traditional deployment process," where every machine in every office had to be individually loaded with software and synched up, "we would have been out of business," Lackey says.

Now, the company can update its J.D. Edwards platform three times a week, add patches and other enhancements, and maintain one fundamental copy of its software in-house. With personal computers instead of these terminals, the company would be pushing out billions of characters of data every night and the PC network "would have collapsed upon itself," Lackey says.

The $12 million changeover has resulted in at least $19 million of savings, Lackey figures, with fewer devices and fewer servers to support, and fewer people on payroll needed to support them. Instead of updating 1,850 desktop machines and servers in 220 local offices and 20 data centers, ABM now has only 220 devices in its single data center to worry about. "When Bill Gates issues another security alert, ABM is totally protected" by this central control, Lackey says.

The applications live in a software and hardware facility run by a local San Francisco co-location service. In effect, ABM is an application service provider to its janitorial, heating, parking and other businesses that operate in cities across the country.

Each office pays only for the use of those portions of ABM's standard software set that each terminal can access, plus Internet access and storage. The cost per terminal comes out to around $85 a month.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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