Case Studies

Fact FileCompanyFirwood PaintsBusinessSpecialist paint manufacturerNumber of employees50ProjectManage very large numbers of customers...
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

Fact File
Company Firwood Paints
Business Specialist paint manufacturer
Number of employees 50
Project Manage very large numbers of customers cost-effectively; find efficient ways to reach new markets; cut costs of sale and increase total revenues
Solution IBM eServer iSeries Model 800 server and IBM xSeries 225 server running Linux and IBM WebSphere Commerce Express, providing Web ordering and fulfilment services
Business benefits Small customers can order single and lower-value items at very low transaction costs; automated sales data entry reduces operational costs; enhanced customer service with online account information served directly from internal ERP system

Bolton-based Firwood Paints manufactures specialist paints and surface coatings for industrial applications. Registered to the ISO 9000 Quality Management Systems Standard, Firwood employs 50 people and researches, develops, tests and manufactures high-performance products to precise, British Standard RAL, Munsell and other colour specifications.

The company has a relatively large customer base, with almost 2,000 active accounts, many of which previously relied on telephone and fax communications to place orders with Firwood. Managers identified that the cost of servicing customers who ordered one-off products was as high as the cost of selling to customers who ordered batches of 5,000 litres or more. The challenge was to continue to expand the total customer base without increasing costs.


Firwood Paints needed to expand its customer base without increasing costs.

Martin Wallen, Managing Director at Firwood, explains: 'The market was getting increasingly competitive as volumes and margins shrank, and we needed a strategy that would reverse this trend, help us reach new markets, improve customer service to retain existing accounts and cut the costs of doing business on smaller accounts.'

A brighter solution

Firwood engaged Stratagem, a specialist consultancy, which recommended turning to the Web to provide self-service sales for smaller customers. The aim was to provide a Web site that could allow larger accounts to interact electronically with Firwood, and where new and smaller customers could place one-off orders at the lowest possible cost of sale.

Firwood’s existing production control and business systems ran on IBM AS/400 systems using BPCS ERP software. The challenge was to find an infrastructure solution that would preserve this investment while delivering the sales benefits of Web technologies.

IBM Business Partner CSI advised Firwood to implement an IBM eServer iSeries Model 800 server, linked to an IBM xSeries 225 server running Linux. The iSeries 800 supports the BPCS manufacturing control solution and manages the product catalogue for the Web site, which runs on the x225 server.

'The new iSeries server has given us the capacity to handle our BPCS production and ERP systems, while serving live data to WebSphere on the x225,' says Martin Wallen. 'When customers place orders online, the integrated solution generates all the necessary internal documentation, avoiding human error, saving time, and giving us a clearer audit trail and analysis tool than we have ever had before.'

Faster, more cost-effective

Running on the xSeries 225, IBM WebSphere Commerce Express links back-office systems with a Web site featuring the product catalogue and offering full e-commerce capabilities. Customers can browse and order by product type, pack size and availability, which is updated directly from the production systems running on the iSeries 800. The introduction of Web-based ordering and account management is expected to lead to a dramatic reduction in administrative workload for Firwood, saving time and money.

'It was essential to fully integrate the new Web-based systems with our tried-and-trusted back-end systems,' says Martin Wallen, 'and only IBM WebSphere gave us the confidence that we could do this cost-effectively and reliably. Managing our back office systems on iSeries helps us to ensure high security and availability for data.'

Stable platform for business

For small, fast-growth companies such as Firwood, a key concern is that IT systems should deliver cost-effective support for business without requiring constant administration. Firwood is a long-term user of IBM OS/400-based systems, choosing to stay on the platform precisely because of its robustness and low long-term cost of ownership.

Says Martin Wallen, 'The iSeries server is ideal for our business -- giving us a totally robust environment that requires very little management.'

He concludes, 'In tandem with traditional sales, the iSeries and xSeries solution has opened up a multi-channel route to market, enabling us to expand the Firwood brand without a corresponding increase in costs.'

Fact File
Company Platform Home Loans
Business Mortgage lender
Number of employees 250
Project Manage transition from Microsoft Windows NT operating system; provide robust Internet services; reduce cost and complexity of IT infrastructure
Solution Consolidated four IBM AS/400 systems to one IBM eServer iSeries model 810 server with three logical partitions running Linux and OS/400 applications; consolidated 13 Intel-based servers to nine Integrated xSeries Servers inside the i810 server
Business benefits Reduced physical footprint and system management costs, better data integrity, easier backup routines, fast disaster recovery, great scalability and low costs

Established in 1989 and acquired in 2001 by Britannia Building Society, Platform Home Loans is an intermediary lender in the UK mortgage market. Platform provides mortgages exclusively through intermediaries, such as brokers and independent financial advisers. This rapidly growing company has around 250 staff handling more than 35,000 mortgage applications each year.

Customer mortgage applications were processed on IBM AS/400 systems, with additional infrastructure applications on PC servers running Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. Users employed a variety of interfaces to systems, ranging from text screens to graphical browsers.


Platform's challenge was to migrate from Windows NT and implement a server consolidation exercise.

Malcolm Duff, IT Director at Platform, comments: 'The catalyst for change was the end of support for Microsoft NT. The existing systems were not designed to run the newer versions of Windows Server, which required a complete -- and therefore expensive -- hardware refresh. The combination of an increase in business volumes, the growth of online mortgage applications and a desire to cut server maintenance and licensing costs called for a strategic rethink.'

Consolidated cost savings

Platinum Blue, an IBM Business Partner, suggested a complete server consolidation exercise, based on IBM eServer iSeries systems and IBM Integrated xSeries Servers. Capital had been allocated only for the replacement of the PC servers, so this total consolidation represented new expenditure. Platinum Blue worked with Platform to develop a server consolidation solution that would deliver performance and flexibility to the business as well as demonstrating a rapid return on investment.

Malcolm Duff reports: 'Consolidation to the iSeries platform was the easiest sell to the board for unbudgeted expenditure I have ever made.'

Platform consolidated its four AS/400 systems to a single IBM eServer iSeries model 810 server, with nine Integrated xSeries Servers (IXS) to replace 12 physical PC servers. IXS is an Intel-based server on a single card that is installed inside the IBM iSeries server, and uses its disk, tape and network resources. Platform uses its IXS cards to run infrastructure applications such as email, print, domain controllers and ftp services. Three logical partitions (LPARs) on the i810 run core mortgage applications, Web servers and Linux for file and print services.

'Though this solution represented a higher initial capital outlay, we have avoided the cost of implementing separate backup and storage area network strategies for our Windows environments,' says Malcolm Duff.

'The i810 has solved our core systems challenges,' he continues, 'providing faster response and easier management through consolidation. The IXS technology has enabled us to back up and restore our Windows systems from the i810, helping us to ensure business continuity fast and cost-effectively. Our IBM Business Partner Platinum Blue has helped us develop, implement and support this consolidation solution, and their experience in delivering a number of these projects has been a great benefit to Platform.'

High security

Platform sells an increasing number of loans via the Internet. Data from online mortgage applications is processed and returned immediately, so brokers can show consumers the price of the loan, leading to fast sales. The new iSeries server hosts the Web server for these online transactions alongside the production systems, as Malcolm Duff explains:

'We did not want live production data exposed to the Web. By using LPARs on the i810, we can provide very high-speed internal network connections from the Web server to production data, with very high levels of security.'

By consolidating its Windows systems to the iSeries environment, Platform has simplified its infrastructure and reduced the administrative workload for IT. Says Malcolm Duff, 'The iSeries server is a fantastic platform for consolidation. The build quality is outstanding -- for example, there was a major explosion at one of our locations, and yet the end-of-day run on the AS/400 continued uninterrupted. And the versatility -- handling several different operating systems simultaneously -- helps to deliver low total costs of ownership and operation.'

Fact File
Company The Daylight Company
Business Specialist lighting products (distributor)
Number of employees 30
Project Collect and analyse business data from global sales operations; reduce administrative expenses and automate business processes; solve growth limitations of existing systems
Solution Implemented IBM eServer pSeries Model 615 server running Red Hat Linux, HansaWorld Enterprise ERP and CRM solution
Business benefits Single system supporting worldwide operations; faster reporting; lower operational costs; ability to integrate Web sales orders with standard business processes

The Daylight Company is a distributor of specialised lighting products that replicate natural daylight, designed for users who want enhanced visual quality. The product range includes daylight bulbs, lamps with magnifiers and grippers, such as those for needlework enthusiasts and modellers, and specialist medical fittings. Daylight employs 30 people internationally, and has sales offices throughout Europe, in the US and in Australia.

Daylight’s business IT infrastructure was struggling to manage a rapidly growing customer database. The underlying Intel-based hardware was not meeting the company’s performance requirements, and running separate systems in each of the corporate locations was expensive in terms of training, administrative support and management time.


Daylight needed a new server architecture to support a rapidly growing customer base.

Lee Raynor, Finance Director, comments, 'Gathering sales reports from different systems was taking too long, and the existing systems had reached their limits in terms of database size. One option would have been to delete some historical data, but we need that history to examine long-term trends, so we knew we needed a new server architecture.'

Seeing the light

With advice from ABS Ltd, Daylight selected HansaWorld Enterprise, planning to implement a single instance of the software at its UK headquarters, and provide Web-based access for the rest of its offices. Daylight need to ensure excellent availability and ample capacity for data growth, and duly selected IBM's eServer pSeries Model 615 running Red Hat Linux.

'Moving all our applications onto a single system for worldwide operations means we no longer have to recruit IT staff locally, and central support staff do not have to learn multiple systems,' says Lee Raynor.

'HansaWorld combines contact management, email, task management, calendar, document and information management, logistics and accounting. We needed a solid platform for this global solution, and the pSeries has proved to be an excellent choice. It offers excellent availability and is more than capable of handling our growing customer database.'

'With HansaWorld on pSeries, we can see business trends in real time, and the finance department can now focus on strategic problems rather than just trying to get the figures.'

Luminous solution offers low costs

Daylight worked with ABS on the implementation of HansaWorld, and engaged Morse Computing, an IBM Business Partner, to advise on hardware sizing, installation and configuration.

Lee Raynor comments, 'ABS was very good at understanding our requirements, and then recommending the right software for our needs. And the partnership between Daylight, ABS and Morse was a crucial factor in the success of the solution.'

The pSeries 615 is based around the IBM POWER4+ processor, a powerful 64-bit CPU offering excellent performance and flexibility. Says Lee Raynor, 'The upfront hardware cost of the pSeries is higher than the Intel-based options we looked at, but the extra power has enabled us to consolidate to a single instance of a enterprise-wide solution. As a result, our software licensing costs are lower, and support and administration costs have also been reduced.'

'And of course the ability to run 64-bit Linux natively on the POWER architecture gives us real flexibility for the future, as well as keeping licensing costs low', continues Raynor.

Bright future with Web integration

The next steps are to integrate Daylight’s Web orders with the HansaWorld systems. The IBM pSeries platform is more than capable of scaling to meet the workload, with easy upgrade options.

Says Lee Raynor: 'When you are a small company with global ambitions, you need total confidence in your main business server. The p615 is extremely reliable, which is very reassuring -- it keeps our IT resources free to focus on delivering business value.'

'The integrated view of data provided by HansaWorld has improved the quality of our management information,' he concludes.

Fact File
Company Vanguard Animation
Business Film production and intellectual property development
Number of employees 170 (used in making Valiant)
Project Equip animators with appropriate resources, while reducing rendering times and maximising security
Solution Maya 3D rendering software running on Linux; IBM eServer x335 servers
Business benefits Network infrastructure for a 200-seat digital studio set up in three months; project completed with no security leaks

Vanguard Animation is an independent studio launched by Shrek producer John Williams. Having made the jolly green ogre a family name, Williams wanted to prove that with talent and imagination it was also possible to produce top-flight entertainment such as Valiant independently of industry giants like Industrial Light and Magic. 'He wanted to create his own animated features under his own company and outside of the studio system,' explains Tom Jacomb, line producer at Vanguard. 'He also wanted to make the film for $40 million, which sounds a lot, but is about half of what it normally costs. So we had to find a way of making this film at the quality required for a full theatrical release, but at a fraction of the normal price.'


Vanguard's digital animation studio used off-the-shelf tools like Maya running on Linux, and IBM eServer x335 hardware.

Few of us are lucky enough to make our own animated films, but Vanguard’s solution to that challenge is an increasingly familiar one for businesses across the board. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Vanguard shopped for off-the-shelf tools where possible, and instead of paying to be locked into a proprietary hardware and software system, it looked to Linux. 'There’s already enough work to be done on a project like this without having to write every routine and plug-in,' notes Mark Pammenter, European director of Alias Systems, which provided the animation tools. 'People realise now that they don’t have to do that -- after all, they want to deliver the book, not the word processor.'

Alias produces Oscar award-winning 3D animation and visual effects software called Maya, which stands out in the market not just as one of the first 3D software packages to move to Linux as its operating system, but to take the open-source approach a step further and let anyone develop skills and tools for free. 'For a variety of reasons, Vanguard could not have timed it better in terms of production costs,' explains Pammenter. 'Hardware prices are dramatically lower, and, with Linux hitting the high notes on rendering capability and multi-tasking workflow, Vanguard was able put together a very fast, sleek pipeline using Maya on Linux and take on the Americans.'

Made for sharing

Alias has a freely downloadable version of Maya, which means there is a large pool of users out there sharing ideas. As Maya runs on Linux, users get access to the vast library of Linux tools being written and shared for free around the world. Plus the fact that Linux leaves the user free to cherry-pick the hardware with the best price/performance benefit gave Vanguard the opportunity to break out of the proprietary system that has traditionally dominated high-end animation. With all concerned giving the green light, work could commence on Vanguard’s first production: Valiant, a WWII film about a cheery carrier pigeon (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who lies about his age to sneak into the RAF and finds himself in occupied France, working with the mice of the French resistance to take on the evil falcons of Von Talon and his henchbirds. It’s a stirring story of stiff upper beaks and bird-brained bravery.

As Jacomb puts it: 'It was a British production, written by an Englishman, directed in England, set in England, and so we wanted to make it here. So we built our digital studio in Ealing Studios.' And the spiritual home of British comedy has never seen anything quite like it. 'Trying to set up the network infrastructure for a 200-seat digital studio in three months was a tough order,' laughs Jacomb. 'But the software was excellent, the partnership with IBM was fantastic, and the whole thing proved very stable. Remember you are talking about a "render farm" of 290 machines, each with two processors, plus another 130 workstations that switch over to rendering during the night, and suddenly you have getting on for a thousand processors working together at once.'

Supercomputer performance

The idea of render farms is that after the 3D artists have created their virtual actors, their movements and their interactions, all of this detail is then fed into a huge bank of high-power machines networked together to crunch the numbers and put the lighting, detail -- and in this case the feathers -- in place for every frame. Networking all the machines (in this case IBM eServer x335s) to work together simultaneously allows for supercomputer performance for an off-the-shelf price. Traditionally, this has been done using Unix, since this operating system was specifically developed for large-scale collaborative computing. Over the years, the price of the proprietary systems dominating the imaging market has led to artists and technicians looking for a way of combining the power of Unix with the affordability of today’s hardware. By switching to Linux, with its free-to-share philosophy, Vanguard has achieved just that.

The big issue of security

Technical issues didn’t just concern creation though, security is key since certain great escapes are to be avoided at all costs. In an age when entire films have been known to be leaked onto the Web before their release, great emphasis is placed on preventing even single images of the cartoon characters getting out. As Richard McGuinness of ERA, the company that supplied the hardware, explains: 'Security was indeed a very big issue, since a film can be made or broken long before its official release, and studios want to control every aspect of this. What we did to help was introduce a new style of technology for the render boxes. Each animator was given a small, thin machine with a graphics card and that’s it -- no CDs, no ports, no access to get data out, just the input tools, a screen and a connection to the workstations which ended up so small we got the lot in just three racks. For that we used the IBM x335 machines -- essentially the eServer machine, because it basically consists of processors and RAM and that’s it, making the device rock solid. The first installation consisted of 200 of these render boxes and 100 workstations for animators, which rapidly grew to about 290 render boxes as the scope of the project grew.'

If the installation was technically advanced it was at least quite straightforward in other ways. 'The whole thing went very smoothly,' says McGuinness, 'and we were lucky to have a blank canvas to work with where there was no infrastructure, legacy, or space limitation.' This partly came out of the nature of Vanguard itself, a company born to fulfil one purpose, create one project, and then break down and completely reshape before the next one. Certainly when it’s time to do it again there won’t be worries on the technology side since the procedure and the hardware came up trumps.

As McGuinness confirms: 'You have to say it worked because Valiant’s release is on us and no one has seen anything leaked at all, even though the animations themselves are typically done three to four months before the renders are finished.'

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