Agribusiness sheds legacy infrastructure

Three years ago, agribusiness firm James Richardson International Ltd. (JRI) was still running legacy green-screen applications on its decentralized network.

JRI has offices in six Canadian provinces and in the northeastern U.S. Its business units include the Buckerfield’s animal feed centres in B.C., a canola processing plant, Canbra Foods Ltd., in Lethbridge, Alta., and its Green Valley fertilizer business in Abbotsford, B.C. It also operates export terminals and farm service centres such as Pioneer, among other things.

Each of JRI’s 95-plus locations had a local version of the firm’s grain management software, which was built in-house. They ran off IBM Corp. AIX servers and stored information on an Oracle Corp. database.

Every 45 minutes each of JRI’s satellite offices would transmit their transactions to the head office in Winnipeg, said Paul Beaudry, director of technical services at JRI. With this method, the organization wasn’t able to access its data in real-time — which meant it was time for an upgrade.

Web-side story

The goal of JRI’s upgrade was to Web-enable the legacy applications and make them available through a corporate Web portal. When Beaudry joined JRI three years ago his job was to refresh the corporate infrastructure to support new Web-based applications. All of this would replace the green-screen systems.

This wasn’t something JRI could achieve by buying an off-the-shelf solution. “The grain industry has relatively few players and we have all developed our own solutions,” Beaudry said.

He examined JRI’s infrastructure and realized it could use some of its existing technology to solve some of its problems and accomplish its goals.

JRI picked Novell’s Portal Services 1.5 product to create a corporate Web portal, which the firm employed to deliver its new Web-based applications to all its users, regardless of location. Since then, JRI has upgraded to Novell’s exteNd 5.2, an advanced version of Portal Services. JRI runs exteNd on Apache Tomcat servers.

With its new centralized IT infrastructure and Web-based applications, JRI can now view data as it is created.

Single sign-on

Previously, each location had its grain management software stored on an IBM AIX box, attached to an Oracle database, which also stored a user table that contained user names, passwords and locations. Employees also had different user names and passwords for each application. JRI wanted a centralized system that stored information about its users in one spot and enabled its 1,000 users to sign on to all their applications via the Web with one user name and password.

For single-sign on Beaudry employed Novell’s eDirectory and Lightweight Directory Access Protocols (LDAP), which it already had installed, to manage its users. JRI built two data trees — the production tree and the Web tree. JRI uses Novell’s Nsure product to enable communication between the two data trees. When a change is made in one tree, it is automatically updated to the other — if it is relevant, Beaudry said.

“We synchronize the data we want,” Beaudry explained. “When we create a user in the production tree, it automatically creates one in the Web tree but it leaves out information that isn’t relevant to the Web tree. For example, if a user changes a password in a production tree, it automatically flows to the Web tree in real-time.”

Now, when an employee logs onto the corporate portal, it only displays the applications they have permission to access. As far as users are concerned, those are the only applications that exist and new applications only show up in the portal when users are granted additional access.

Beaudry said that if an employee leaves or starts at the company, their access can be deleted or added in one place.

Additionally, JRI uses products from third parties such as Business Objects SA’s Crystal Reports. It used to have its own database but now it goes to eDirectory for its security authentication, Beaudry noted.

Throughout these implementations, JRI has also upgraded to Netware 6.5 and upgraded its Novell’s ZENworks Desktop Management 4 to version 6 to push updates to some of its locations because it is time-consuming for IT staffers to travel out to each office. ZENworks enables JRI to manage application deployment and policy management for the firms’ desktops, Beaudry said.

Small snag

From start to finish, the infrastructure refresh and development of Web applications took about 18 months, Beaudry said. However, JRI called in Novell’s consultancy wing to handle the Nsure deployment because it was too expensive to train the IT staff to do it.

One small snag JRI ran into was the existence of the IPX protocol in its infrastructure. “You discover along the way that one little HP print server is IPX-only and then you have to flip the server because you can’t print,” he said. Otherwise, he said it was relatively painless. The implementation took 18 months because everything occurred in increments.

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