Talk About Savings
When Strive Logistics, a Chicago-based multimodal transportation provider, began experiencing an increase in the amount of goods it was moving across the country, the company’s IT department knew it had to upgrade the way it was transmitting data to clients.
The company, which transports food, beverages and consumer goods by truck, rail and air, had relied on an electronic data interchange (EDI) system to transfer electronic documents and business data from its computer system to its customers’ individual systems.
EDI had worked well in the company’s early days, providing shipping status updates to customers and saving valuable time. But the IT department knew the company could become even more efficient when working with its clients.
Since opening in 1995, Strive Logistics had evolved from a local cartage and warehouse company into a premier transportation provider to Fortune 500 companies, as well as to smaller emerging businesses around the world.
“Our EDI was very outdated, and it was hard and cumbersome to use,” explains David Gerst, Strive Logistics’ IT manager. “I was at the mercy of the software vendor.”
So Gerst turned to Microsoft’s BizTalk Server, which automates business processes by using adapters that are built to communicate with different software systems. Thanks to BizTalk, purchased in early 2010, Strive Logistics now can integrate and manage business processes by exchanging shipping orders and other documents with other companies through the adapters — and the shipping firm doesn’t have to rely on its clients employing the same software.
Efficiency Through Automation
With BizTalk, Gerst says the server maps each of his clients’ processes and matches them with Strive Logistics’ EDI documents. In addition to business process automation, BizTalk provides business-to-business communication, message brokering and enterprise application integration.
“BizTalk saves us the time [associated with] receiving orders by fax and then entering them manually,” he says.
With BizTalk, Strive Logistics can standardize all e-commerce transactions on one platform, which ultimately improves transaction monitoring and helps the company adapt quickly to clients’ transaction systems, Gerst says. BizTalk also puts automated data consolidation and information at his fingertips, improving decision-making, he adds.
The switch to BizTalk helped the company work with existing clients but also accelerated the addition of new partners, Gerst says. Before implementing BizTalk, Strive Logistics had three clients that shared the EDI system and transmitted electronic documents with the shipping firm. Establishing a new client on Strive’s EDI platform usually took close to eight weeks to complete, involved outside vendors and cost roughly $5,000 per client, he says. Strive Logistics spent roughly $40,000 to deploy BizTalk but recouped those costs in five months, he adds.
To date, the company has added more than 20 clients, who can be integrated into its BizTalk server in just five business days. “I can do it myself,” Gerst explains. “Before, we would rely on a vendor for EDI, and it was four to six weeks before they could even start.”
Gerst says BizTalk helps his company because it includes more built-in error reporting, records a snapshot on the health of the system, and involves more graphic and visual components. It also reduces costs because manual processes are minimized.
The number of days it took Strive Logistics to integrate a new client into its BizTalk Server platform, down from nearly eight weeks prior to the implementation
Implementing BizTalk is a big decision for a company, Gerst warns, and executives should prepare accordingly before installing it. Despite all the benefits, new users must be willing to learn a new system and software. “It’s not like you’re learning word processing,” Gerst says. “It’s more like a whole new programming language.”
To facilitate the process, Gerst hired a vendor to train him in the transition to BizTalk. After one month, he was ready to use the server on his own. He recommends that anyone moving to BizTalk hire a vendor to deploy the server and teach its intricacies.
“I could’ve set it up myself, but it would have taken three or four months playing around with it” to do it, he says.
BizTalk’s Microsoft pedigree has further eased the transition. “We’re a Microsoft shop, and BizTalk integrates easily,” Gerst explains. The fact that the system operates on a familiar platform has meant less training and higher productivity for Strive Logistics employees, he adds. “We hook it into our current applications without any problems.”
Making the Switch
Businesses considering implementing BizTalk must do their homework before deciding to install the platform. The following five factors should be considered before the transition:
- To get the highest possible return on investment, consider creating a trained in-house team that knows how to develop and administer the BizTalk platform. David Gerst, IT manager at Strive Logistics, hired an outside vendor and learned the infrastructure within a month. He says the training equipped him to create a production and development system on his own.
- When deploying a BizTalk server, evaluate how server groups need to interconnect and communicate. Determine ahead of time the most secure way for traffic to flow between the company and its partners. Look at your company’s existing network infrastructure and decide which protocols and communication methods make sense before proceeding.
- Consider the number of applications and systems you plan to integrate into the server. A large number of systems will require load balancing and clustering to prevent major failures. Clustering, which provides failover capability for the server, offers built-in redundancy; if one server in the group fails, the others continue processing requests without interruption.
- Create an operating environment that’s transparent so the IT team is alerted when service levels are threatened. New users should understand the other technologies in the platform, such as Reporting Services, Windows Workflow and SharePoint. Learning these overlapping technologies will help your IT staff understand when to use them.
- Be careful when estimating the costs of bringing the BizTalk server on board. Remember that the total package consists of both BizTalk Server and the SQL Server tracking database.