How ADP Gets Tough with IBM

In the basement of Automatic Data Processing’s labs in Roseland, N.J., server farms pound on IBM’s WebSphere application server. Even on weekends, when VP of Internet and client/server development Yen-Ping Shan would go to supervise, the payroll-processing company’s servers and the machines throwing transactions at those servers are humming. This creates what Shan calls “the weird impression of super-human beings sitting in front of the machines,” driving the user interfaces and pumping screens to the server very fast.

Before ADP chose WebSphere as its platform for developing Internet applications, the software survived and passed 25,000 tests administered by these servers.

However, IBM General Manager John Swainson notes, IBM “can never rest.” Because every time IBM sends ADP an interim release of WebSphere, the servers test it: How many transactions can it handle before it breaks? Does it have bugs?

“We have too many clients doing too much important business. We can’t afford to rely on the vendors’ tests [alone],” says Shan, who notes that his division, Employer Services, serves 100,000 companies and that vendors’ interim releases sometimes create more problems than they solve.

Indeed, ADP’s tests are the foundation of what Shan calls the Train methodology, keeping everyone associated with ADP’s software development—including IBM—on track.

Interim software releases from IBM and other vendors are treated as train passengers and tested before ADP relies on them to develop applications; new software features developed by ADP are tested to see if they’re robust enough to be delivered to customers. Train methodology has the additional advantage of keeping ADP on track; business and technology executives argue less about whether marketers have sold more online services than the technical staff can develop, and weekly sales rates are easier to monitor.

Swainson claims that Shan called him to solicit IBM’s business because Shan was dissatisfied with the performance of software from IBM’s rival, BEA Systems. Shan declines to discuss this, saying ADP is “constantly on the lookout for the best technology provider” and that he appreciates IBM’s scalability, security and service. BEA did not respond to requests for comment.

ADP is also learning how to write code the Internet way. It is rewriting its software in Java and migrating it to run on WebSphere; it plans to offer payroll services over the Internet that it has delivered previously to customers on compact disks. Customers can receive services from any browser, and ADP should be able to create new services faster because Java is able to write code that can be executed on any type of computer.

But Java is not for beginners. Swainson says large customers like ADP that are “trying to write a new generation of mission-critical applications” require hand-holding. Shan agrees. Configuring two servers is easy, he says, but the challenge of configuring 15 machines in two hours to handle an automatic software update is much easier with help from consultants such as IBM’s.

Indeed, Swainson says, 30% to 40% of IBM’s software customers have grown so tired of coping with the complexities of creating new code that they’re now spending enough money with IBM to be considered “strategic customers,” such as ADP.

Swainson, for instance, is ADP’s designated IBM executive. He says his role is to serve as “a safety valve” should something go wrong.

Every two weeks, Swainson briefs Shan on plans from IBM’s development lab and its software group. Shan in turn can influence the design of IBM’s products. Currently, he is monitoring how IBM’s labs are adapting WebSphere to host

Shan says ADP will accept nothing less than “an executive-level” relationship with a vendor. “When things are not getting done, you have a line into their organization if they need help reminding them that this is critical. Most vendors understand,” he says.

IBM keeps both salespeople and technical people on-site at ADP. In addition, IBM Global Services helped ADP develop a documented process for moving new software from development to quality assurance to hosting on an all-IBM hardware/software stack in one of ADP’s data centers.

“If something goes wrong in deploying an app, we fix it,” Swainson says.

“We don’t point fingers at them, we don’t turn the clock on, we just get there and show them, ‘here’s how to build a good J2EE app.’ We end up providing them with a huge amount of support, because at the end of the day, our goal is to sell products as a result of making customers successful, and if we do that they’ll buy a lot more. And if we don’t do that, bad news travels fast.”