Nothing But 'Net

Waste industry information managers are overseeing a wholesale transition to advanced communication networks that tie far-flung branches, sales representatives and headquarters into integrated powerhouses.

Internet technology forms the basis of most of these efforts, while a number of variations on Internet themes provide companies with opportunities to tailor their networks to individual needs. The network variations go by several names, including Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Intranet Networks and Internet-based Application Service Providers (ASPs).

Despite the concept variations, the goals remain similar. Companies want to boost the quality of customer service and operating efficiency by increasing the speed of data processing and information flow among company personnel wherever they may be, whatever they may do. In addition, companies want to control the cost of technological solutions.

Advanced networking technologies provide these benefits.

Waste Industries Inc., Norcal Waste Systems Inc. and Stericycle Inc. each have implemented different networking strategies aimed to garner these benefits. Here's a look at what they are doing and why.

Waste Industries' VPN

As the nation's seventh largest public waste management company, Waste Industries, Raleigh, N.C., maintains 43 locations including a home office, nine landfills, and commercial and residential collection facilities spread across eight southeastern states. The company fleet stands at 800 trucks. Company employees number 2,000.

Managing such widespread operations requires a sophisticated approach to advanced network technology.

Throughout the 1990s, Waste Industries' branches connected directly to an AS-400 IBM mid-range computer located in the corporate home office through telephone lines and satellite uplinks. This system allowed the branches to engage in real time processing in financial, routing, dispatching and maintenance applications hosted by the AS-400. However, the system did not provide Internet access to branch locations. As a result, only the home office had e-mail capabilities.

The system worked well, company officials say. But the lack of Internet access and company-wide e-mail presented increasingly unacceptable limitations.

In the middle of 1999, Brandon Peacock, the company's web and communications manager, met with company officials including Charles Lee Hicks, the systems manager, Stephen Shaw, the CFO, and Phyllis Mews, the billing supervisor, to discuss building a more comprehensive network.

Waste Industries' system integrator, System Operation Solutions (SOS) based in Raleigh, also participated in these discussions, which produced several specific customer service goals. In particular, company officials wanted to improve the quality of billing by adding online bill paying, reducing errors and making more billing information available to customer service personnel so they could discuss invoices with customers.

SOS recommended a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. “A VPN is a secure pipeline that uses the Internet as a pathway,” Peacock says. “It allows a branch office to connect to our home office over the Internet, but with encrypted data passing through the system behind a secure firewall. A VPN provides the same kind of security and reliability as a dedicated Intranet, but it does not use dedicated data lines, which are pricey.”

SOS designed and implemented the VPN for Waste Industries, bringing most of the company's branches online during 2000. All of Waste Industries' branches now communicate through the new VPN.

Branches connect to the system with the best quality connections available, using always-on telephone line connections such as ISDN and DSL as well as dial-up connections provided by an Internet service-provider (ISP) in areas not offering the more advanced lines.

The new system allows company-wide access to both the Internet generally and the VPN. Desktop computer users in the branches now can communicate with headquarters and each other using standard Internet browsers and e-mail.

Meantime, branches will continue to use the software applications hosted by the corporate-based AS-400 computer. These programs include World financial software supplied by JDEdwards of Denver, and billing, routing and accounts receivable software from SoftPak, San Diego, Calif.

But the VPN provides a host additional benefits. “We've revolutionized our billing system,” Peacock says. “Before installing the VPN, we used SoftPak to create our billing files, which go to ExpressBill, Toledo, Ohio, a company that prints, stuffs and mails the bills. To check errors, ExpressBill would pull 30 or so samples from each branch office and fax them to our home office for spot checking. SoftPak data files did not show the final results in the same form seen by customers. As a result, spot checking could miss things, and errors occasionally occurred.”

The VPN has enabled Waste Industries to address this problem. Each branch can now proof its own bills. Prior to printing, ExpressBill posts images of the bills on a website located on a Waste Industries server. This site was developed with a software product called NetView, created by PFC Technologies, Woodland Hills, Calif.

To proof the bills, a billing manager in a branch office simply opens Microsoft Internet Explorer and logs into the company website that houses these images, proofs the bills, and requests changes and corrections from ExpressBill via e-mail.

After printing and mailing the approved bills, ExpressBill sends the final bills to another Waste Industries website using NetView. Images of individual bills remain at this site for 6 months. When a customer calls a branch to question a bill, a customer service representative can call up an image of the bill in question, along with the SoftPak data file showing current balance and payment activity.

Without the image of the bill in question, the customer service representative had no way to backtrack with the customer to find the source of the problem, Peacock says. “As a customer support issue, this was unacceptable. We want to look at the same bill they are looking at when there is a question.”

Images of bills older than 6 months are preserved in CD archives.

To complement the new system, Waste Industries is adding another billing system feature: online billing. This system will use PaySense, a product made by TriSense Software Ltd., Burnsville, Wis., and currently is being tested in one branch office.

“We are sending fliers stuffed in bills informing those customers that they can go to a Waste Industries' website and sign up for online bill payment,” Peacock says. “The customer will then create an account at that site. The site will notify us, and we then code that customer's billing file for electronic billing only.

“When a bill is prepared, the system pulls the file from the paper billing system and sends it to a TriSense website,” he continues. “TriSense creates an image of the bill that resembles the paper bill. An e-mail message notifies the customer that the bill is available and offers a hyperlink that takes the customer to a screen allowing bill payment. Upon logging into that site, the customer sees the due date with credit card and bank-draft payment options.”

Currently, 10,000 Waste Industries customers pay their bills through an auto-draft system under which their accounts are drafted automatically each month. This system forces a customer to pay on a certain date and also requires Waste Industries to key payment data into the company's internal accounts receivable program by hand.

The new system will address both of these problems. The customer controls the payment date by communicating with the TriSense website. In addition, when bills are paid, TriSense creates data payment files that move automatically out of the accounts receivable files and into paid files.

According to Peacock, CTP Solutions, Agoura Hills, Calif., integrated the ExpressBill, PFC and TriSense applications to provide these services.

What makes all of these different data manipulations possible, however, is the communications network — the VPN in Waste Industries' case.

The Thin Network at Norcal

With 22 collection, transfer, landfill and recycling locations, Norcal Waste Systems Inc., San Francisco, has grown large enough to require efficient network communications. The company currently is migrating from a network based on leased telephone lines to a private Intranet using Internet communication methods.

An Intranet uses dedicated data lines to create a network. Connections to the Internet are limited and carefully controlled. This differs from the VPN used by Waste Industries, which uses software to secure a network that operates over public Internet lines.

“This system will enable us to distribute all of the applications required by our accountants, operations supervisors, clerks, customer service reps and managers across the network from a central location,” says George McGrath, senior vice president and chief information officer for Norcal. “Information technology costs are not measured by a cost benefit analysis. Instead, costs are measure by the total cost of ownership: what it costs to own computers and software. The idea behind our server-based distribution system is to reduce the total cost of ownership.”

According to McGrath, a “thin client” will produce these savings.

Who or what is this skinny client?

A web browser running on a desktop computer is a client. When surfing the Internet, this client-browser accesses web pages that reside on other computer servers located across town or on the other side of the world. The client-browser asks the server for information, and the server serves the information up on the desktop screen.

Until a couple of years ago, client-browsers or other client software brought information back from servers and processed it on a powerful desktop.

While this is still done — and done often — it's no longer necessary.

“Think of a computer the size of five pancakes stacked on a plate,” McGrath says. “This equipment has no hard drive or CD-ROM. We push applications from servers in our corporate offices to these ‘thin’ clients in our subsidiary operations. These devices allow you to do everything you can do on a PC, but the processing and storage is done at our headquarters.”

In other words, a thin client doesn't have any application software.

“[It's] nothing but a web browser,” McGrath says. “These devices cost less than $500 each, so they are inexpensive to purchase. In addition, we don't have to install software in each machine. If we want to upgrade a Windows application to the next version, we simply do it here in the corporate office. Everyone in our subsidiaries has instant access to the new version.”

Of course, Norcal must pay for all of the software it uses. But it doesn't have to pay a lot of people to keep a far-flung system up and running. “I don't have to add staff to maintain our back office, operational and customer service work,” McGrath says. “If we buy another operation, we don't have to hire a technical person to integrate that company's operations with ours, we simply implement thin clients in the office and everyone uses the system here.

The Norcal thin network not only reduces the total cost of ownership mentioned by McGrath, it also offers the same kinds of benefits available through a Waste Industries' VPN.

For example, McGrath is experimenting with an online bill paying option and developing customer service enhancements, such as scheduling pick-ups and calling for maintenance online. He also is investigating incorporating routing and a global positioning system (GPS) into the network.

Stericycle's Alternative Thin Client System

In the past year, Stericycle Inc., Lake Forest, Ill., virtually doubled its size by acquiring Browning-Ferris Industries' medical waste operations. Now, Stericycle operates 80-plus locations in the United States and Canada. A large network of sales representatives also raises the number of locations requiring computer access to Stericycle headquarters into the hundreds.

Two years ago, planning for growth, Stericycle's corporate headquarters and 20 or so facilities implemented a Transcomp Tower 2001 System, which administers contracts, pricing and exceptions, plus dispatching, routing, order entry, billing, and accounts payable and receivable.

To make it easier to bring new operations online, the company attached the Transcomp system to a thin client Intranet, which has a different look than the Norcal thin client system.

“The Tower 2001 allowed us to do our own Intranet development, which integrates [it] with other specialized medical waste systems important to our business,” says Patrick Cott, Stericycle's vice president of information. “For example, we use a bar-code system to coordinate our transportation and billing operations. One of the most important parts of the system is the SQL Server, which snapped fairly easily into our overall system.”

The Stericycle network enables all of its locations to communicate with the main data center located in Lake Forest via a browser such as Internet Explorer. Most of the computer processing work in the system occurs at headquarters, with the browsers requesting operations over the Intranet. This is a thin client software system.

“When we say thin, we're talking about the software element,” Cott says. “We haven't made a distinction about the hardware. Our motivation is to make the system accessible and to make network utilization efficient.

“From a pure processing perspective, we want to make all interactions with our core system thin,” he continues. “But we also want people to be able to process information offline. This is done by taking data through the browser and populating a program on a desktop. For example, many of our people want reports done in different ways. Our system distributes or pushes reports to people in the branches in Excel files. By bringing up the data in Excel on their own desktops, they can slice and dice the data any way they want and create their own custom reports without the involvement of our IS department.”

This system allows everyone access to the information he or she wants, but all that travels through the network is data, not pre-packaged reports that might require larger, more expensive data lines.

In addition, Stericycle has not had to replace desktop computers focused on a thin hardware concept. “Most desktop computers today are so much faster than you probably will ever need,” Cott says. “When these computers communicate over the network, they use browsers. When they process data, they use application software installed in the desktop.”

The Large and Small Networked Future

While larger companies have so far seemed to be the ones implementing networks to integrate offices, small companies with one, two or several locations also can benefit from this concept.

“Generally, the direction of software is to be Internet-enabled and run over a network through a browser,” says Pat Sweeney, president of Transcomp/, Orange, Calif. “Later this year, we plan to launch an ASP component of our portal. This ASP will do the same thing for many companies over the Internet: It enables you to keep your books and run your trash business with a browser talking to our product. Whether you use this web-based concept as an Intranet like Stericycle or through an ASP depends on your preference and your size.”

In other words, some large companies may want to outsource their data processing through an ASP simply because they prefer investing in other areas of their business.

On the other hand, smaller companies may not have the capital to invest in powerful, full-featured systems.

But both kinds of companies can subscribe to an ASP and tap into the features of high-end systems.

Connecting to an ASP is like connecting to America Online, Dulles Va. The difference is that America Online offers entertainment, news, games, and various consumer features. But an ASP offers high-end application systems tailored to the needs of different businesses.

“You pay for these systems through a fixed monthly subscription fee based on the number of users in your company,” Sweeney says. “There is no start-up cost and no need to invest in technical staff and internal systems.”

Eventually, these systems will offer all of the services of the dedicated VPNs and Intranets used by companies such as Waste Industries, Norcal and Stericycle, including online accounting, dispatching, routing and other back office systems. Online bill-paying and other customer service systems also will be available.

What will you need to use these systems?

Nothing but the 'Net.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor.

Unscrambling the Acronyms

Want to upgrade your system but don't understand the lingo? Here's the acronyms unscrambled.

ASP: Application Service-Providers

CD: Compact Disc

CD-ROM: Compact Disc Read-Only Memory device

DSL: Digital Subscriber Line

GPS: Global Positioning System

IS: Information Systems

ISDN: Integrated Services Digital Network

ISP: Internet Service-Provider

SQL: Structured Query Language

VPN: Virtual Private Network