PracticeConsultingIT at work: network management and financial analysis

IT at work: network management and financial analysis

Close co-operation between consultancy, vendor and client is esseential in any implementation. Here Guy Matthews examines the development of a number of such joint ventures in network management and financial analysis

The Department for Overseas Development (DFID)

The Department for International Development is the government department responsible for managing the UK’s overseas aid budget. As a body funded by tax payers’ money, and one with a humanitarian purpose as well, the DFID is under pressure to ensure a low cost of system ownership and a high degree of productivity. With over 1,600 users around the globe, this challenge is all the greater.

When the organisation decided on a major network management rethink last year, it needed a software choice that would deliver identical performance across multiple borders, while enabling centralised management. And as the Internet is central to the way the DFID works, the solution would need to be web-enabled.

The resulting choice was a system based around Novell NetWare and Novell Directory Services (NDS). Other key parts of the system are BorderManager Enterprise Edition, Novell’s directory-enabled Internet security management suite, and ZENworks, Novell’s desktop management tool. There are plans afoot to further enhance the system by upgrading to Novell GroupWise 5.5, the latest version of the vendor’s groupware product.

The BorderManager element creates virtual private networks (VPNs) between the DFID London HQ and the various overseas sites via the web. DFID head of IT Adrian Bennett outlines the benefits: “With so many of our users overseas, things can be very expensive to manage. The VPN connection allows the overseas users to access our intranet and central IT systems in the UK, and transfer files and e-mail in native GroupWise format. And all this for the cost of a 64K leased line connection to the ISP. We can also download software and solve network server problems remotely. We have found that this is the most cost effective method of managing the network, and securely connecting remote users accessing sensitive data over the Internet.”

Meanwhile back at DFID’s London offices, all new applications are likewise accessed via the corporate intranet, accessible from every PC. The intranet acts as a central repository for corporate and departmental information, thereby overcoming a long standing problem of a lack of information sharing between DFID departments.

Bennett says that BorderManager’s caching component speeds up access to web pages, reducing bandwidth requirements. “Our security system is multi-layered. Government guidelines are very strict with regard to security, but by using these new products in conjunction with our firewall, we can meet the high level required.”

Bennett says that the system now works well, to the satisfaction of users and DFID management, but the early beginnings of the implementation were not so smooth. “We started with what we thought would be a pretty basic system, but soon found it spiralled into something much more difficult as each bit of technology turned out to have a complex relationship with other elements. It got all a bit fraught since it was such a big change all at the same time.”

That the project still managed to come in on time and within budget is, says Bennett, a testimony to the close co-operation between his own inhouse team, and the technical people from consultancy Barrett Edwards International (BDI), as well as input from Novell itself. “BDI helped out with BorderManager, since it is a Novell specialist. It also helped us roll out NetWare 4, which we did not originally realise we’d need. It turned out that in order to run NDS, we had to take that route.” Another consultancy, Zergo, was drafted in to help integrate the firewall into the system.

Bennett says: “From a business point of view, everything has worked out fine. The way we work has been transformed. Cost savings have been made, largely thanks to the VPN technology. We are now looking at building on what we have achieved so far. We want to enhance the system so that it works equally well in all countries, which is not so easy at present because of different bandwidth availability in the developing countries we work in.”

Wolverhampton Metropolitan Borough Council

During the past 10 years, central government has been on a crusade to restructure the way in which local authorities work in order to create a more customer-serving and accountable system and to service the community more directly.

Wolverhampton Metropolitan Borough Council, responsible for running a range of facilities including housing, leisure, social services, education, technical, environment and central services, has been no exception to this process.

As part of its work, for example, Wolverhampton Council is responsible for the management of the town’s central and 23 satellite libraries, and this involves making sure the network itself is secure and runs efficiently. The council realised a few years ago that the existing library system was fairly antiquated, having been in use for approximately 15 years. The existing hybrid system produced a tape of all issues, discharges and renewals which was then processed overnight on the mainframe. Borrower and book information was captured separately. Some of the weaknesses of the system included its lack of functionality and limited access to other libraries in the surrounding area.

By late 1994, Wolverhampton’s libraries recognised the need to replace this ageing system with a more comprehensive and flexible application. Due to the scale of such a project, assistance and advice from the council’s own Computer Services Division was much needed.

The division’s technical manager Graham Kirk says: “Security was the main driver and as a result we felt that the most effective solution would be a network management one.”

Computer Associates’ Unicenter was eventually selected. Says Kirk: “In 1988 we moved from DOS VSE to MVS and adopted ACF2 as the mainframe security package following a review of security packages by the council’s audit section. Since then, computer security has always been high on the agenda of requirements, particularly with the advent of more open systems. In addition, a fairly diversified approach has driven us to look more into providing an effective systems management solution across all platforms.”

He adds: “At the time, there were not a lot of system management solutions around. We had certain criteria such as security, tape management and event management that we needed to use. In the long term we needed a framework where we could run different servers on various platforms using a common system management tool. Unicenter not only provides these functions, it also allows us to administer the entire system from one workstation.”

The council also needed to integrate Unicenter with some of its existing applications as it intended to run them under Unicenter eventually. Previous experience of CA on the mainframe confirmed its decision to use the product.

The decision was made in 1995 and by April 1996 implementation of the system was complete. The library system currently resides on a Sun Solaris platform and runs 86 PCs over Unix, one database server, one application support server and has licenses for 120 users. The libraries’ main use for Unicenter lies in the areas of security, event and tape management.

Unicenter security sits on top of the native Unix security and controls access to resources such as user files by defining the system’s users to the security database and listing which assets they have access to. Control is flexible and multiple resources can be controlled by a single rule.

Event management allows the council to take a log of the operating system and keep track of the regular housekeeping jobs running online and overnight, recording whether any problems or security violations have occurred.

Tape management was a more recent implementation which is used to protect tapes, applications and perform system backup. Tape mounts of incorrect tapes may be avoided and detailed audit reports can be obtained.

The product requires little training and allows staff be cross-trained across the various features. In the long run, Kirk hopes to extend use of CA-Unicenter beyond the library and across the council’s other platforms, thereby centralising control to one single point and thus creating an accountable system.

Return to the Management Consultancy website for web linksCornhill Insurance

Cornhill Insurance, originally formed in 1905 as a fire insurer, is one of the heavyweight names in its market sector. Cornhill has been engaged, along with the rest of the insurance sector, in a process of acquisition, consolidation and rapid product deployment for a number of years now. This process intensified in particular in the mid-’90s. The company launched Cornhill Direct in 1995, its rival to the direct insurance operations that were starting to make an impact on the market, and Petplan, now the UK’s leading pet health insurance product, a year later.

The inevitable pace of change combined with a shift in management structure meant that, by 1998, Cornhill’s financial accounting systems were in drastic need of an overhaul. A decision was taken to improve system flexibility and enable better enterprise-wide reporting with appropriate tools.

Gerry Cox, Cornhill’s chief accountant, explains: “Like all major insurance companies, Cornhill has a particularly complex financial accounting requirement in that it has multiple divisions and a large chart of accounts with hundreds of thousands of account code combinations. Cornhill operates through nine quite separate trading divisions, each of which offers a different range of products for a distinct marketplace.”

The selection process to find a product able to address this level of complexity led eventually to Coda-Financials, from Baan subsidiary Coda. Cox says: “Coda scored well because it has a better ‘look and feel’ and is less rigid and complex than competitors’ products. We also found that it provides a far superior level of management information output. For the first time we have the flexibility to integrate disparate units and business systems with core accounts.”

On 1 April last year, Cornhill went live with a 100-user implementation of Coda-Financials, the whole project having taken a little less than 12 months. It was then rolled out to 25 sites across the UK, including Cornhill’s two main offices in London and Guildford and divisional operations in Bristol, Tunbridge Wells and Brentford. All of Cornhill’s trading divisions now use the system as well, including Allianz Cornhill International, Petplan and Lawclub.

Cox says: “We now have synergy between trading divisions. For some time we’ve been looking at ways of standardising accounting processes across multiple subsidiaries, and this software has enabled us to overcome this hurdle. We can now access key financial information such as claim payments from a centralised source. Previously each of our trading divisions had a self-balancing general ledger, but now we have a modern unified database structure so all ledgers are updated and in balance immediately after an entry is made.”

Decision support facilities are provided by a suite of business intelligence products based on tools from Cognos.

Looking to the future, Cornhill is already ahead of the EMU game, thanks to its new system. Coda-Financials was among the first corporate financial solutions to be EMU-accredited, which has already paid dividends by allowing Cornhill to integrate its French and Irish subsidiaries into the system. In the event of UK entry to EMU, the company would be well positioned. As Cox says: “We now have the flexibility to support multiple currency transactions in real time, so all information is available straight away. We are able to maintain competitive edge since our staff can make real time decisions and closely monitor control and planning. Our parent company likewise has an accurate picture of our operations.”

Spillers Petfoods

Established over 130 years ago, and now owned by Dalgety, Spillers Petfoods is Europe’s second largest pet food company. Its UK portfolio includes brands like Arthur’s, Winalot and Felix. Through acquisitions, the company has expanded its operations significantly and now has sites across Europe and in Scandinavia.

When Spillers began to acquire petfood businesses across Europe, including the Quaker Pet Food business in 1995, its existing decision support systems turned out to be no longer adequate. As Peter Farrand, marketing director of Spillers Petfoods, explains: “Previously, key information was accessed by our marketers and sales staff through a number of relatively disparate legacy systems and spreadsheets.”

Paul Hirst, Spillers’ director of MIS in Europe, explains further: “Our expansion programme meant that processes were being re-engineered across the entire enterprise. Consequently, we found ourselves looking for a coherent management information system that was flexible enough to grow alongside the company and support new transactional systems.”

Spillers wanted a system that would deliver better value from its sales, marketing and supply chain data, through a single integrated system across Europe, so that decision makers throughout the enterprise could instantly access and analyse the information they needed.

Oracle had already been selected as Spillers’ strategic information management partner, and enterprise-wide operational data was already being brought into a central Oracle database. But in 1995 Spillers evaluated a whole list of leading executive information and decision support systems before deciding on an Oracle solution: Oracle Express Server, with Oracle Financial Analyzer.

Tony Whitmarsh, senior business analyst at Spillers, was responsible for the selection process: “We required a system that could cope with multiple hierarchies, perform “what-if?” analysis and provide a user friendly front-end to enable users to select the relevant data. Oracle’s solution offered us that.”

A packaged solution for on-line analytical processing (OLAP), it provides ad-hoc object-oriented querying and analysis across any number of variables. The core product delivers actual, forecast, and budget figures.

Oracle Consulting was given responsibility for customising the application to meet Spillers’ specific needs. The UK phase of the system went live in autumn 1996, and now has over 90 users. It reports key performance indicators and monitors customer and product profitability. The system is also used for financial and management accounting.

A major reason for the project’s success is the use of prototyping workshops, says Rodway. “The Oracle Consulting team helped us examine our business issues and define our current and future business requirements, including the weekly and monthly key performance indicators,” he says. “These were brought to life through prototyping, using our own data, so that we could show end-users how the final solution would look.”

The prototyping was also vital in enabling Spillers to go live in relatively short timescales. “In essence, we’ve done our strategic thinking on a major scale, but we’ve acted in a measured, small-scale way, with containable pieces of customisation work at each stage.”

As the system is rolled out across Europe, Oracle Consulting is customising the application to meet each country’s requirements.

“The system is flexible enough to deliver management information across our entire pan-European organisation,” concludes Rodway.

Guy Matthews is a freelance journalist

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