Magazine Article | October 1, 2002


Source: Field Technologies Magazine

As it grew from $164 million to $5 billion in just seven years, Corporate Express knew it had to finally make the leap to a SAN.

Integrated Solutions, October 2002

Surviving in the dog-eat-dog world of business means staying hungry. You must maintain an appetite for growth. If you can't stomach growth, you starve. Starve, and you die. It's that simple.

At $5 billion office and computer products supplier Corporate Express, Inc. (Broomfield, CO), there has been a lot of salivating. Beginning in 1994, when the then $164 million company received funding to do acquisitions, Corporate Express gobbled up some 200 smaller suppliers in two years. By the end of the decade, it had itself been gobbled up by global giant Buhrmann (Amsterdam, Netherlands). That led to a merger with Buhrmann's existing U.S.-based office products division, which had previously subsumed more than 100 smaller entities. In 2001, Corporate Express, now a ravenous Buhrmann company, acquired $800 million U.S. Office Products, which had taken over 200 companies in the mid-1990s. So, as it looks around its corporate table today, Corporate Express sees the result of a seven-year feast on more than 500 companies.

Given Corporate Express' rapid growth through mergers and acquisitions, a "survival of the fittest" attitude is also required of its IT department. No company can successfully pull together two - let alone hundreds of - systems and business processes unless its IT staff can stomach change. In particular, IT has to accommodate the incessant escalation of transaction volumes as acquired companies and their customers are melded into Corporate Express' operations.

In the supplier/customer relationship, Corporate Express isn't the only one with knife and fork in hand. Its customers devour $16 million worth of office and computer products per day. Moreover, Corporate Express readies those orders for next-day delivery and offers multiple sales channels, including E-Way, its B2B Web interface. Consequently, the company's data storage systems face increasingly demanding throughput and capacity requirements from applications involved in orders processing. So, in addition to building a centralized order management system, the Corporate Express IT staff kept pace with company growth by moving storage to a SAN (storage area network).

ERP, WMS Need Storage Support
The move to a SAN reflects Corporate Express' overarching efforts to manage its transaction processing systems from a central data center. "Acquisitions are often done at the local level," says CIO Monty Sooter. "However, regional managers are responsible for moving acquired businesses onto our standard system and catalog. That allows us to feed centrally processed transactions down to locally managed DCs [distribution centers]." While order management is handled by InVision, Corporate Express' proprietary ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, the standard catalog of product offerings is set up on software from Trigo.

Having a central order management system and a standard catalog does more than align newly acquired companies. It also enables Corporate Express to design transaction processing options to accommodate customer preferences. Providing a multiplicity of ordering channels - phone, fax, EDI (electronic data interchange), and Web - is just one way Corporate Express addresses customers' needs. It also responds to their expectations concerning billing, reporting, and shipping. "A large, strategic customer with multiple locations may want to have centralized billing. Another may have multiple billing entities across the organization," says Sooter. "Some customers may want to have their purchasing reports broken out by geographic region; others will want them broken out by functional area or by commodity."

Typically, multi-facility organizations want to contract for some items to be shipped to several locations. One of Corporate Express' government customers, for instance, has 5,000 "ship to" locations. "Customers want to be treated the same way in all of their locations - with access to the same catalog and the same turnaround time," Sooter admits. To maintain its 99.5% rate for next-day delivery to any location, Corporate Express supplements its DCs and 1,700-vehicle fleet with a network of wholesalers, who handle approximately 15% of Corporate Express' order fulfillment demand.

SAN Brings Size, Speed
Corporate Express' decision to support its centralized systems with SAN-based data storage wasn't an easy one. For years, Corporate Express had been happily connecting its Sun servers to direct SCSI (small computer system interface)-attached Symmetrix boxes from EMC Corp. However, as its application infrastructure grew, Corporate Express was running out of ports on the EMC units. "SAN technology was still fairly immature, so we didn't really want to bite off a SAN," explains Andy Miller, VP of technical architecture. "But, our systems and applications had grown so large that we couldn't directly connect everything to the storage. So, we had to move the storage from SCSI-attached on the servers to a Fibre Channel network."

Two years into the SAN deployment, Corporate Express is satisfied with the results. Moving to a SAN enabled the company to undertake a major consolidation of its storage hardware - from five EMC frames to three. The EMC units support all applications involved in transaction processing, order management, and customer maintenance. Combined, those applications demand 21,000 I/O (input/output) per second throughput and 12 TB of storage capacity.

Corporate Express reports no enduring problems from implementing or managing the SAN. Nevertheless, in the early stages of the rollout, it did have to leap a few interoperability hurdles. "The various vendors contributing to a SAN solution may interpret the SAN specifications differently, and that can cause compatibility problems," says Miller. When Corporate Express built its SAN, it installed switches from two different vendors. It soon discovered, however, that its Fibre Channel HBAs (host bus adapters) could log in to one switch but not the other. The problem stemmed from a difference in how the switch vendors had interpreted a particular part of the log-in sequence. The fix came in the form of a firmware patch from one of the switch vendors.

Another test case came when someone plugged a switch from one vendor into a different vendor's switch. "The SAN went down because the interoperability protocols between the two vendors were relatively new and untested at the time," Miller explains. "Today, the standards are much better understood." Still, for companies considering their first SAN deployment, Miller recommends getting a solution that is certified and supported end-to-end by all vendors involved. "Make sure all SAN components - storage boxes, switches, and servers - have been run through interoperability tests," he advises.

Transactions Ride On Web Services
With the EMC-based SAN providing support for high-volume transaction processing, Corporate Express' next IT steps will focus on enhancing customer interaction and service. "Even though we sell products, we're a services company," Sooter says. "The service customers want most is a procurement process that's as invisible as possible." By deploying the webMethods platform for EAI (enterprise application integration), Corporate Express has already made significant strides in streamlining the order entry process. "We have more than 200 customers whose e-procurement or ERP systems have been integrated with our applications via webMethods," Miller says. "We can even set up direct integration in which E-Way, our e-commerce application, lives in the customer's system. The response time is less than a 10th of a second for a customer line item transaction to be entered into our order management system."

Intent on expanding its B2B offerings, Corporate Express is using Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) to drive its latest application development. For customer-facing applications, J2EE will facilitate the company's efforts to provide access to more of its supply chain operations. "With J2EE, you can offer applications as Web services without having to write a lot of code. And, you can put applets into the production environment that users can quickly load and reload via their browsers," says Miller. Also on the application integration horizon is the planned 2003 rollout of a CRM (customer relationship management) solution.

The various initiatives for enhancing its B2B interfaces suggest that Corporate Express retains a hearty appetite for pulling in more customers and more sales. In fact, the growth spurt from $164 million to $5 billion in annual revenue seems to have merely whetted the company's cravings. "We built an application and storage infrastructure that can scale up as we continue to grow," says Sooter. "We fully expect to be a $10 billion company."