Opportunity When Opportunity Knocks - Go For It

By Ed Sperling

It was supposed to be a simple fulfillment contract—a no-brainer with no future. IBM Corp. would supply the $2 million SP parallel servers. CTS Inc., a Roswell, Ga.-based integrator, would install the $70,000 front-end control workstation. IBM would keep account control. And CTS would go back to lesser projects at Worldcom. That’s how it was supposed to work on paper. But in the real world, a piece of paper is sometimes just a piece of paper. Smart resellers see opportunity for broadening their impact with the customer, and move rapidly to provide the right expertise at the right time.

 The contract was awarded by WorldCom Inc., the massive communications carrier that has been swallowing companies such as UUNET whole and making spectacular bids—most notably for MCI Communications Corp.—in its quest to become the pre-eminent Internet and national telecommunications provider.

 Because of its quick-growth strategy, WorldCom’s IT infrastructure has proven something of a challenge to tame. Not all of the companies it has acquired use the same technology, and making these disparate systems all work together has not been easy. "We have a lot of little fires," admits Ken McDermed, senior Unix production administrator at WorldCom in Tulsa., Okla. "One of the problems is that we go out on a budget for expected equipment, and we find we need two times as much. That means we need to make the equipment we have work twice as hard."

 That’s where the SP fits in. The SP2—aka the IBM 9076 Scalable POWERParallel SP2 System—is a parallel-processing server. Just as its name implies, it is a highly scalable rack-mounted Unix server based on RS/6000 processors. If more capacity is needed, another rack can be added on.

 WorldCom uses SPs for high-capacity data storage, allowing information from local exchange carriers to be stored in a central repository. Because speed is critical, a fast path for interconnecting the SPs was needed, allowing the devices to communicate in real time despite heavy traffic loads. IBM proposed using its high-performance switch, which runs at a blazing-fast 150 Mbytes per second, to connect the SP2 processors within the rack. That’s about 15 times faster than the industry-standard Fiber Distributed Data Interface (FDDI), which runs at 100 Mbits per second.

But getting IBM’s switch to work at the promised speed is apparently no mean feat. That’s where CTS saw its opportunity and grabbed it.

Working Up The Ladder CTS initially wasn’t even in the running to work with IBM’s high-performance equipment. The integrator started out doing simple product fulfillment at WorldCom with RS/6000 R30s, R40s and R50s, some running Adstar’s distributed storage manager for back-up purposes. The company also was involved in a number of high-availability projects involving SCSI-based 3494 tape libraries.

 The question facing CTS was how to get a bigger piece of the action. Prices for SPs typically are upward of $1 million, so even with 5 percent margins the reseller opportunity tends to be substantial.

 In addition, large systems such as the SP2 tend to drag along a raft of high-end services such as consulting and on-site maintenance.

 Moving into the SP world also meant stepping into the heart of WorldCom’s core information technology. But there are only about 20 to 30 resellers authorized to sell and install SPs, and at the time of the contract, CTS was not one of them.

"The SP switch is pretty complex in the way it’s wired and configured," says McDermed. "There are many different ways it can be tuned. You have to take into consideration how an application will use the switch, the size of ‘re-codes’, how often it re-codes, whether one node handles more than another. CTS did a lot of network analysis."

 Mark Webb, manager of CTS’s professional services division, said the switch was so complex that WorldCom and IBM were relying on FDDI, the common back-up solution. To complicate matters, CTS was being forced to play the middle ground between IBM and EMC Corp., which supplied the storage devices for the SPs. According to McDermed, WorldCom regularly brings in resellers to act as liasons between different vendors so it does not get stuck in the middle.

 Using its understanding of the high-speed switch, Wesley Taylor, vice president of CTS’ Southwest region, went back to IBM to request authorization for CTS to do the SP work itself. And IBM granted it.

 "It took us time to get up to second-floor development," Webb said. "The current [SP] project is integrated into both sides of the house." Webb said the WorldCom operation includes nearly 200 servers running a variety of services from telephony to billing.

 CTS has managed to leverage its position at WorldCom into a long-term relationship. There currently are two CTS engineers working full-time at WorldCom at a rate of $60,000 a month. And both companies expect that arrangement to be renewed this year.

 The moral of the story: Get in the door first, do whatever is necessary to win a customer’s trust, then build on it. The first contract may not yield fruit—and some never do—but the best way to build a future is from the ground up, rather than trying to start with the big ones and pick the low-hanging fruit. 

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