For many companies, future growth requires adopting a singular, global view of nearly every aspect of the business: the workforce, supply chain, operations, and sales. That means a global approach to business technology, whether it's supporting a network infrastructure spanning dozens of countries or coaching development teams from Brussels to Bangalore. Here's how five U.S. companies are meeting the challenge.
Gen. George Patton made the point that even a great strategist can't win a war unless he keeps his lines of communication clear. Whether you're fanning out an army across Europe or expanding a business around the world, Patton's insight holds true.
One of the most persistent technological challenges of global business is getting communications networks to expand in lockstep with business. Cost and complexity increase as a company's network spreads across the world, while employees increasingly rely on that network as their lifeline to the business.
With some 500 locations in more than 30 countries, Johnson Controls Inc. knows the challenge well, having increased its Internet bandwidth 50% in the last year. "I've been here 3-1/2 years, and the expansion has been very aggressive," says Mark Schoeppel, VP of global IT Infrastructure for the automotive-industry supplier.
Johnson Controls isn't a risk taker when it comes to business technology. "I wouldn't say we're a bleeding-edge company," Schoeppel says. The company was born about 120 years ago, when Warren Johnson, a professor at the State Normal School in Whitewater, Wis., invented the electric room thermostat. His business, called Johnson Electric Service Co., became a leader in temperature control. The company diversified over the years, changed its name to Johnson Controls, and expanded into automotive components in the 1980s, becoming the world's largest manufacturer of car seats. It's now a worldwide leader in both automotive systems and environmental controls, with revenue topping $22.6 billion last year. Johnson Controls has 118,000 employees worldwide and factories on five continents.
The company connects its offices with a frame relay WAN, which it buys as a managed service through MCI. While the pipe has proven reliable, in recent years, increasing bandwidth demands have put a strain on it. In the past, overseas facilities had no connectivity to other regions and ran their manufacturing applications locally on small Unix servers. But when the company began connecting those offices through VPNs and sharing applications globally, demand surged.
This affected application performance, yet Johnson Controls had no way of determining which applications were gobbling up the most bandwidth. In the meantime, the company began centralizing, moving away from its practice of running multiple versions of critical applications, with different offices and regions having their own deployments. Now users around the world connect to an office in Milwaukee to run PeopleSoft Inc. apps for human resources, benefits, and payroll, or to Germany to run SAP financials.
To solve its bandwidth problems, last summer, Johnson Controls started using nGenius Performance Management from NetScout Systems Inc., a device that's controlled by Web-based software. The system shows how programs behave, identifies network bottlenecks, and helps the IT staff determine where it can prioritize and optimize traffic. The system has helped identify potential problems before they occur, preventing downtime and data loss, and has paid for itself by reducing the amount of time spent on the network, Schoeppel says.
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To increase bandwidth capacity, Johnson Controls added new frame relay pipes and VPN-tunneling services. In the coming year, Schoeppel says, the company will spend significant time and resources on the deployment of new Multiprotocol Label Switching-based connections. Services based on that standard connect sites in a redundant web of links, offering more resilient communications than point-to-point frame relay architectures. Those connections should make it possible for Johnson Controls to eventually achieve its cost-saving goal of converging voice and data on one network.
There are plenty of other businesses facing global network challenges. Schoeppel's advice? "The biggest mistake you can make is assuming that you're going to have the same kinds of problems as here in the U.S.," he says. "You have to personally go out to these regions, spend time there, find out what the challenges are. There just is no substitute for having your own feet on the street and your own eyes on the problem."
--David M. Ewalt
Photograph of globe by Holly Lindem
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