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FMS Solutions Saves Time and Money by Modernizing

Robert Graybill
Robert Graybill President and CEO, FMS Solutions. Photo by Marisa Guzmán-Aloia

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Customer: FMS Solutions
Headquarters: Pasadena, Maryland
Business: Retail store services
Challenge: Modernizing its core application to keep up with user expectations
Solution: Working with CM First and using CA Plex to enhance its Synon-based application to please its customers and remain competitive with its rivals
Hardware: Two IBM Power Systems 720 servers
Software: CA Plex from CA Technologies and FMS’ Vision Suite

Software modernization is a popular topic these days—and for good reason. Modern users expect modern solutions, including mobile access to back-end resources, seamless data integration no matter the platform and, as has long been the case, easy-to-use, cool graphical interfaces.

And commercial application providers are no exception to this craze. They too need to offer all of the above, to both keep existing clients on board and, just as importantly, attract new ones. FMS Solutions, which provides accounting services and consulting for retail stores, decided it needed to bring its solutions up to date by using newer technologies and design paradigms to surpass its competitors.

The biggest inhibitor to this? All of its applications had been developed using Synon to run on IBM i and the IBM Power Systems* platform—and not in the recent past. FMS could have started from scratch, rebuilding from the ground up, but that would’ve been untenable for a company known for its quarterly software upgrades.

Instead, the company decided to partner with CM First Group to deploy a modernization tool, CA Plex from CA Technologies, to support its modernization efforts with minimal disruption to its development team.

Not only that, but by undertaking this partnership with CM First, Robert Graybill, president and CEO, FMS, estimates his company saved roughly $750,000 and six months of development time over taking on the effort solo. As Graybill further notes, “In the end, the project came in on budget and only one month off schedule. For a smaller IT shop like ours, this was a blessing both from an expense perspective and our ability to deliver.”

Several Service Types

When founded in 1974, the Pasadena, Maryland-based FMS had a mere handful of independent-grocer customers in several mid-Atlantic states taking advantage of its accounting services. Now it has more than 4,000, spanning 46 states, three Canadian provinces, and the countries of Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. Additionally, its clients now include not only independent grocers, but also chain grocers, gas stations and hardware stores, as well as a mix other retail businesses.

Part of this expansion is due to the flexible delivery methods of its offerings, which include a robust financial application that offers services for accounts payable, accounts receivables, general ledger and payroll.

“We have three different service types. One is an outsourced service where the client interacts with the software over the cloud but we perform the actual work through our business process outflow center. The second is subscription-based Software as a Service (SaaS) model, where clients use our software over the cloud to conduct their own work. Then the third service level involves customers actually acquiring the software and using it on site. They like to hug their servers every morning,” he says.

FMS also provides value-add offerings that include benchmarking, best practices, and time and attendance solutions. (It sells its own time-clock and labor-scheduling hardware, and the software that runs on it.) Benchmarking allows FMS to analyze and share industry trends—often based on client data—for industry associations, wholesalers and individual customers. The best practices derived from this data let customers learn from one another to improve overall operations, such as limiting theft at the point of product delivery.

Applying Best Practices

FMS has applied similar best-practice solutions to its own business, especially in terms of application development. That’s why it’s committed to quarterly upgrades to its software, knowing that good is never good enough. “Our IT guys are pretty good at running a tight ship,” Graybill remarks. “They take pride in their work and don’t want phone calls from customers unless they’re saying, ‘Good job.’ ”

But the company had run into a wall in terms of creating an application that reflected modern computing expectations. Younger users have “zero tolerance for things that look old,” Graybill notes. And the application’s Synon-based green-screen interface did indeed look as if it was from another era, despite the improved functionality added with every update. This could have potentially meant the loss of some current customers and reduced sales opportunities.

“And our salespeople were starting to see some push back from that next generation of users. We knew we had to get something out there in front of everybody and then say, “Hey, we hear you and we’re working on it.’ So part of our concern was business need. We had to do something to keep our customers satisfied,” Graybill says.

Additionally, FMS wanted modernized integration between its front-facing servers and the back-end Power Systems servers. In order to accomplish this, the company had to begin using modern languages, such as Java* and PHP, in favor of Synon.

Easier and Expected

The need to modernize its application recognized, FMS then had to decide the most efficient and cost-effective way to do so. Over its 40-plus years of existence, the company had rewritten its application a number of times. In this case, however, that alternative was off the table. It would take too long and cost too much.

“Initially, we were looking at a ground-level rewrite, but my feeling was that the accounting side of the product is just really good, so why mess with it?” Graybill says. “Modernization was our only other option.”

Before choosing a modernization tool and vendor, however, FMS reached out to its clients to solicit feedback regarding the most effective upgrades that would affect their daily workload. Once a comprehensive wish list was created, the company began searching for a suitable partner to help with its modernization effort.

“Initially, we were looking at a ground-level rewrite, but my feeling was that the accounting side of the product is just really good, so why mess with it? Modernization was our only other option."
—Robert Graybill, president and CEO, FMS Solutions

“We began investigating companies that specialized in modernization,” Graybill recalls. “And CM First is the company that brought up the CA Plex tool—which suited our needs—and given the prior work we had done with them, we had already developed a good, trusting relationship. They’d delivered before without a lot of hassle and they’re just easy to work with.”

With all of those ducks in a row, FMS began the modernization effort, with CM First doing most of the heavy lifting. This included helping FMS with the entire lifecycle of the project, from design, to development, to testing, to training.

Because CM First was so involved in the project, which began in late 2016, FMS only had to add one IT staff member as work proceeded. If FMS had decided to rewrite, the company would have needed to bring in a team of developers dedicated to tackling the application- development job—a costly solution.

In this case, CA Plex allowed the company to essentially convert its Synon code to Java and PHP code. Both of these languages are more conducive to web-based computing, with front-end Windows*-server calls being sent to the back-end systems running on IBM i, and the resulting data being routed to the external server and then the end user.

These modern tools also allow for greater functionality. "Everything’s easier and what you’d expect in today’s computing world,” he explains.

The Modernization March

To help enable the modernization process, FMS also took a simultaneous look at other aspects of its IT environment, including its hardware. This eventually included the acquisition of a new Power Systems 720 to replace its previous Power Systems server. (The company also has a Power Systems 720 that acts as a backup to its production server.) This holistic approach included instituting new procedures and methodologies, upgrading lagging infrastructure and migrating to newer web technologies.

“One of the most important parts regarding our application- modernization effort was potential speed degradation with the web browser. We didn’t want it to be noticeable to the customer,” Graybill recalls. “We had to evaluate the communications times between servers to ensure that there wouldn’t be any noticeable lags. The last thing you want to do is roll a new product and have users complain that it takes them twice as long to do everything.”

Although the project is ongoing, FMS hit one of its major milestones in early 2018 with the launch of its new application based on its modernized platform. This switchover was so revolutionary that the company called it the Vision Suite.

“Because we have quarterly releases, we didn’t want customers to just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Oh, another release from FMS.’ We really made a big deal about it, because the marketing of our modernization was a critical part of why we undertook this effort,” Graybill says.

Better Ideas

Thanks to CM First, FMS now has a modernized application that’s matching—if not surpassing—its competitors’ offerings. Customers are benefitting the most, however. They now have a more flexible, accessible and useable system, based largely on their feedback at the onset of the process, that will help further their own business goals. Their guidance and opinions were, in fact, so meaningful that the day before an FMS conference, the company met with a group of retailers and asked them what they envisioned for the Vision Suite.

“One of the things I love about our customers is that they come prepared,” Graybill says. “One guy had a massive flowchart and that basically broke down everything they were doing with other companies. He basically said, ‘Hey, you guys should be doing this. We shouldn’t need a third party to do it. This should be part of your system.’ So while we try internally to push the next new and great thing, the reality is their ideas are usually better than ours.”

The best part? By partnering with CM First and using CA Plex to convert the Synon code, FMS saved roughly $750,000 and six months of development time. And that's all the data Graybill needs to prove that it pays to modernize.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at jjutsler@provide.net.


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