From 'glasshouse' to client/server and now, highly integrated IT systems, MTR Corporation has certainly gone a long way IT-wise. Edward Leung rides its IT train.
April 2000 - Last year, Hong Kong was ranked among the top 10 best Asian cities to live in by Asiaweek. One factor
that helped put the SAR on the list was its well-developed public transport network, which gets both residents
and tourists to their destinations in the shortest possible time.
The MTR rail network, owned and operated by MTR Corporation, is one vital component of this public transport backbone. Commissioned in 1979, it now has five lines and 44 stations, with the newest extensions serving Tung Chung New Town and Chek Lap Kok on Lantau Island. The management of such a network presents many challenges, and MTR Corporation has, over the years, deployed several predominantly proprietary IT systems to support its operation.
When the railway system first started operating in 1979, a payroll system was among the first IT systems to be rolled out. This was followed in the '80s by systems for stock inventory, plant history recording (to maintain asset failure records), preventive maintenance and material control planning. PCs were introduced only in 1987 to run office automation applications such as Lotus 123.
Changing with the trend
These early systems formed part of MTR Corporation's IT 'glasshouse', then also popular with many other large organisations. The hardware core consisted of seven VAX mainframes linked initially to terminal servers, then to local networks serving several hundred, and then later 3,000 to 4,000 PC nodes with the gradual addition of new stations, staff and maintenance facilities. When client/server technology was trendy in 1994, the corporation restructured its IT setup and started replacing the VAX platforms with HP Unix-based servers. Users were given direct access to the server through LAN connections.
In 1998, the wear-and-tear factor, the increasing demands on the aging back-end systems, plans to further expand the rail network, and a commitment to providing a safe and reliable railway system for the riding public, prompted MTR Corporation to review its IT options.
Says Daniel Lai, Head of IT: "We had 11 maintenance systems, four independent major accounting systems and other IT equipment that made up our IT backbone, which had been running for more than 10 years. With the continued expansion of the network, a more integrated system – especially in the back end – was necessary. After reviewing our options, we decided that it was best to deploy new systems rather than fix them ourselves and make them Y2K-compliant."
Need to upgrade
The Corporation started by listing a number of selection factors for the desired new back-end system. These included: cost effectiveness, excellent vendor technical support, and adherence to industry best practices. "For example, we wanted a system that could provide better workflow for our accounting and maintenance procedures," Mr. Lai says. Adds T.P. Lo, Rolling Stock Manager who is responsible for depot operations and hardware maintenance: "We wanted a solution with a proven track record, and an IT vendor with stable operation and a solid financial base."
After a rigid search process and an RFP, MTR Corporation shortlisted about five vendors from an initial list of 16 which submitted proposals. In October 1998, the company opted for a partnership consisting of Mincom Ltd. and Oracle Hong Kong Ltd. Mr. Lai says a partnership could provide the corporation with "guaranteed back-to-back services".
The two partners came up with a solution that MTR Corporation calls Financial, Logistic & Maintenance system (FLM), with each contributing specific technology and expertise for its deployment. Oracle supplied its RDBMS and financial modules, including Accounts Payable, General Ledger, Accounts Receivable and Fixed Assets. Mincom provided its Mincom Integrated Management Suite (MIMS) Open Enterprise system covering work and resource planning, works orders, logistic management and project control. Andersen Consulting was tapped to ensure that the new applications and those original systems to be retained were interfaced seamlessly.
FLM went 'live' in September last year. The Mincom systems run on three HP Unix servers (one for database, one for applications and the third as a backup).
The Oracle applications and database are deployed on another HP server, with a fifth server for backup in case the application server fails. Users in all departments, including the head office and all maintenance depots, can access the Oracle and MIMS modules via LANs. According to Mr. Lai, there are 4,500 users in all departments that can access the core applications.
With FLM, MTR Corporation now has an integrated system to manage maintenance, logistics and financial accounting. This allows for an enterprise view of the whole IT setup, making for better control, according to Mr. Lai. "The new system allows us to have a better procurement workflow between departments. We are now also able to better integrate our service records with the accounts payable system."
Maintenance of various railway equipment and hardware is also easier with the new integrated back-end system. By 2003, the MTR network will be extended to Tseung Kwan-O in the New Territories. Mr. Lai says the company is now planning to extend FLM system coverage to that area.
MTR Corporation is also deploying an ATM backbone scheduled for completion in September 2001. Equant, a major data networking vendor, has been contracted to install the backbone, which will include Cisco routers and switches.
Once deployed, the network will allow the company to run data, voice and video traffic on one pipe across 38 stations and three maintenance depots. With this backbone, MTR Corporation will be able to easily conduct computer-based training courses for all station staff, while the engineering department can download station blueprints or electrical schematics faster.