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DHL Mexico Follows the Money

Informix Flexible Grid helps the global logistics company consolidate its IT infrastructure on its own terms

In the summer of 2011, IBM will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its acquisition of Informix, one of the early mega-investments the company made to expand its software portfolio. Skepticism abounded when the strategy appeared, but the ensuing years have seen customer retention, increasingly well articulated market positioning, and continued development of innovative product features. Some, such as partitioning techniques, have made their way into other IBM database offerings. Others remain unique, and DHL Mexico, a longtime Informix customer, cites Flexible Grid as an example of IBM’s continuing commitment to meet its needs.

Providing logistics services around the world is no small feat. For DHL Mexico, a local $370 million business that contributed $40 million in profit to its global enterprise parent during its past year, the required infrastructure is a complex, difficult-to-maintain patchwork. Tackling the issue of managing information technology cost-effectively is a priority. Felipe A. Villegas Moran, CIO of DHL Mexico, says the hardware and software combinations he must manage are numerous, and 10 percent to 15 percent of his annual budget goes to the upgrades required to keep everything interoperating smoothly. When as much as $10 million per year is dedicated to maintenance and the refreshment of systems, every financial advantage Villegas can find is crucial.

“We have huge needs. We are looking at doubling our capabilities not only in logistics, but also in information infrastructure. We move more than 75,000 shipments per day; that means more than 500,000 different checkpoints of information that we use to track every single shipment,” Villegas says. Villegas is streamlining everything possible in the DHL Mexico IT infrastructure: simplifying applications, eliminating software platforms, and reducing the number of servers. DHL is already reducing its servers from 109 down to 80 in Mexico. Nonetheless, it has added enormous processing capacity because of the effectiveness of its new hardware and software. But there is much more to do—and software that is tightly wedded to its platform can be an impediment, limiting the operational and investment flexibility that is needed for optimization of the infrastructure.

“Many transnational companies are discovering this problem,” Villegas says. “Five years ago, all of our units were much freer to do what they wanted for local autonomy; now we see the value of being global as well as local.” DHL has a worldwide collection of applications—large and small—running on virtualized systems that include IBM, HP, and EMC hardware with IBM and VMware virtualization environments atop multiple operating systems—including Windows, Linux, and UNIX—that have varied programming environments as well. Above all this runs the application layer, and for DHL Mexico, much of it runs on IBM’s Informix database.

IBM® Informix® database has long been a top choice for globally distributed enterprises that need to install it and leave it alone. All the DHL companies run Informix; the daily core applications, which operate across the company’s 66 million checkpoints from Mexico to Malaysia, are based on Informix. DHL Mexico has many running copies of Informix across a broad variety of applications. Today, the organization operates several release versions on many hardware and software platforms, but Villegas is firmly set on a path to consolidate and simplify. An innovation in the most recent release of Informix will help DHL leverage its infrastructure investment while migrating and updating: Flexible Grid.

Flexible Grid for flexible consolidation

Introduced with Informix release 11.7, Flexible Grid allows organizations to create a grid—with two servers or thousands of them. The grid can contain a mix of hardware, operating systems (AIX, Linux, Solaris, and Windows), and versions of Informix. Informix offers centralized, simultaneous administration for all servers in the grid. It balances workloads across the grid. It practically eliminates planned downtime and reduces the number of DBAs needed. With one command from a single location, administrators can create new nodes and propagate the required Data Definition Language (DDL) across the grid to all the necessary locations. Each node is automatically configured for the hardware it is running on, including the number of cores. Backup and restore to and from the cloud are supported. For the many sites that DHL must operate—most without IT staff—these features will be invaluable.

The administrative benefits are onlypart of the story. Optimizations in Informix 11.7 have dramatically improved query and transaction performance, and have leveraged physical changes to the POWER7 platform to make transparent improvement possible. But equipment has a useful life and a planned replacement schedule that is designed to make the best use of funds. “The Flexible Grid capability will let us continue to use old equipment and add new equipment to scale out with different types of hardware and operating systems. Pressure for systems convergence will drive platform convergence, and Informix Flexible Grid will enable that to happen much more easily—on our schedule,” Villegas says.

Flexible Grid will permit the continuous use of the applications even as platforms and the operating systems on them change. It will not be necessary to upgrade or refresh all of them at the same time. Storage provisioning is automatic—meaning that intervention at that level often will not be required, creating dramatic administrative time savings.

Additional innovation

The Informix community is accustomed to the investment IBM has continued to make in the platform it relies on. From the free downloadable Developer Edition to the top-of-the-line Ultimate Edition, IBM has added numerous features to Informix in recent years. Enhanced high availability, encryption, and text search were added in 2007 and 2008. Data warehouse features, Cognos integration, and in-memory support (via solidDB) followed in 2009. And in 2010, with release 11.7, grid computing and new features for application embedding were on the menu.

Recent innovations leveraging the extensibility of Informix, such as the Spatial DataBlade for location-based data and the real-time feed capabilities enabled by time series data accompanied by the TimeSeries Real-Time Loader DataBlade, will likely add great value—especially for DHL’s mission. IBM has laid out a road map for the next several years that includes support for Hadoop, multi-temperature data, and the extension of grid to non-database sources.

The infrastructure that Flexible Grid provides will make it possible to seamlessly exploit these features as DHL continues to build out its network. Doing it on your own terms, at your own pace, and within your financial constraints sounds like a win for DHL.