Union Pacific Railroad ditches its mainframe for SOA

By Thomas Hoffman, Computerworld |  SOA

Union Pacific didn't conduct an ROI analysis on NetControl, because the project was viewed as a risk mitigation strategy to replace a 40-year-old system that has become difficult to maintain but is nonetheless core to the company's business, says Tennison. Still, he says company executives have identified cost savings generated by NetControl.

Tennison says Union Pacific considered other options besides building a completely new system, including the possibility of using on-demand cloud-based services, but they didn't meet the company's needs. "Although we do see huge swings in capacity, we don't in volume changes. We didn't see the economics, and we don't have the wide swings in compute requirements" to justify a shift to on-demand computing services, he says.

The NetControl project also gives Union Pacific a chance to make its transportation services better for its customers. For instance, whereas the older system offered freight customers the ability to track and trace their orders, the new SOA-based platform will enable customers to see their actual itineraries. That will be made possible by more tightly integrated Internet capabilities and new applications that tie in more directly to customers' business processes, says Brandl. She notes that the 220-person NetControl project team recently began planning the development of that functionality.

Because the NetControl system is being phased in over time, Union Pacific's freight customers already have increased visibility into their orders. For example, customers no longer have to call or fax in their orders a few days ahead of time with the number of freight cars they'll need for a single shipment or set of shipments, says Brandl. In 2005, the NetControl project team developed an application called Total Car Management that made it possible for customers to place orders via the Web and use their browsers to see when freight cars have been applied to their orders, says Brandl. The application has helped Union Pacific reduce the amount of manual car orders by 75% since it was installed, according to company officials.

Union Pacific's shift away from the mainframe system's green-screen interface has also benefited many of the younger employees. For instance, Brandl says it takes 10 weeks to train a customer service rep on the old system, but it's expected to take just six weeks once the new system, which is much more intuitive, is full implemented.

Younger people "have grown up in a texting environment with MySpace and Facebook," says Brandl, so many of the company's younger staffers and customers "expect to be able to go to the Web to find what they're looking for without having to use some special code to get there" as they would with the green-screen system.

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