Lyondell Petrochemical profits from a visionary NT strategy

Randy Lewis, IS director for Lyondell Petrochemical Company in Houston, Texas, is a man with a vision. In 1991, Lyondell--one of the nation's largest petrochemical companies--decided to re-engineer its IS department. The company chose Lewis to lead the effort, although his vision of a distributed, but integrated, information architecture with strong central management was not popular in that industry at the time. During the next four years, that vision transformed Lyondell's IS architecture, bringing it up to the state of the art.

The change began with hardware. Lewis knew that to stay current with technology, he needed to replace his computer fleet every three to four years. In 1991, purchasing workstation hardware from Gateway 2000 was significantly less expensive than buying from Lyondell's traditional suppliers. So, he switched to Gateway. This move was bold because clone manufacturers were still building their reputations for quality. But the savings on hardware helped finance the necessary expansion of Lyondell's network and software.

The software suite Lewis chose also was unconventional but impressive for its time. Lyondell was one of the first large petrochemical companies to implement Windows and the Microsoft application suite as an enterprisewide standard.

Lyondell replaced its aging mainframe and its scattered, loosely connected LANs with more than 1200 Pentium and 486 workstations with multiprocessor servers, high-end routers, and switching hubs. By 1993, Lyondell had networked all its workstations, giving employees standard software and one email and scheduling system.

The Need for NT
In late 1994, Lewis was planning the next phase of the IS re-engineering when he realized Lyondell needed another change. He guided Lyondell's decision to replace its legacy mainframe applications with SAP's integrated client/server application suite.

Lewis knew that running such mission-critical applications as SAP required a more robust, manageable environment than the company's current Windows 3.1 and Novell architecture provided. To meet this requirement, Lyondell beta tested SAP's software under Windows NT Advanced Server on Compaq Proliant servers. Lewis was impressed with NT Server, and he knew that Lyondell's standard hardware configuration (a Pentium with 32MB of RAM) would support NT Workstation on the company's desktops.

Up to that point, the company had been waiting for Windows 95's release. To help evaluate the choice between Win95 and NT, Lewis turned to Frank Normand of Computer Techniques, Inc. (CTI). Normand's company had performed a similar analysis for Lewis in Lyondell's first standardization and DOS-to-Windows migration in 1992. CTI had implemented the migration with great success, so calling again on Normand's talents was natural for Lewis.

In early 1995, CTI completed its technical analysis, which revealed NT's superiority to the as-yet-unreleased Win95. NT outperformed Win95 in scaleability, reliability, security, and robust crash protection. Installing NT on the servers and desktops would let Lewis reduce the number of OSs for his overextended technical support groups. So, Lewis gave CTI the go-ahead to begin testing NT for implementation.

Starting the NT Installation
For the next two months, CTI tested various domain models and server and workstation configurations. Then Normand challenged his three-man core technical team by announcing, "Next week, we will install NT." He knew that getting started was often the toughest part of an implementation.

The technical team directed a small installation group of four hardware and software technicians through the first installation--the 50 desktops in the IS department. CTI decided to use the IS department as a test case because the staff would provide immediate and knowledgeable feedback, which is exactly what Normand's team got. CTI quickly used the lessons from the IS department and designed new installation procedures.

Normand developed pre- and post-installation test plans. He then added a technical writer and software tester to the core team, four people to the technical installation team, and a manager to coordinate the whole installation team. In addition, Normand divided the workstation installation into three phases to distribute the work over the installation team's differing skill levels.

Phase 1
The goal of Phase 1 was to verify that the workstation hardware met the technical team's minimum standards and to install the NT files from the installation server. Lyondell considered a 486/66MHz with 16MB of RAM and at least 90MB of available hard disk space, the minimum acceptable on an NT hardware platform. Although NT required only about 52MB, the installation team planned to replace the 16-bit versions of Word and Excel with the new 32-bit NT versions, which defined the 90MB limit. If a target machine did not meet these minimum standards, the team upgraded the machine with memory or a new hard drive, or replaced it with a new Pentium.

With the workstation hardware requirements out of the way, the junior members of the installation team began installing the Phase 1 software. They used a custom installation script that the core technical team had created. The script used Fastback for DOS to save a backup image of the DOS/Windows workstation to a Novell installation server. After the backup, the team used the script to install NT directly from the installation server.

The next task in Phase 1 was to configure the necessary network protocols to reach the NT servers the technical team was building. Using an automated, push-button installation routine and detailed installation documentation, Normand was able to rely on less experienced, less expensive technicians to lay NT's first layer.

With the backup, Phase 1 took an average of 1.5 hours per machine. Then the installation team configured each workstation to immediately boot to DOS. By setting the attributes of the newly installed files and directories, the team was able to hide them, so users were unaware that NT existed on their machines. Because the progress of the installation was transparent to users, they could work unimpeded by scheduling logistics or technical difficulties. At the same time, Phase 1 laid the foundation for the experienced technicians to do future configuration work.

Phase 2
Phase 2 began the migration of the users' Windows desktop and initialization (.ini) files to NT. The senior CTI installation staff who performed Phase 2 had to allow for user customizations. For example, the NT Setup program does not migrate the four program groups that both Windows and NT have (i.e., main, accessories, games, and startup); instead, NT provides new groups. So, the installation team had to use a special procedure to account for any user changes in these four groups.

In addition, during Phase 1, the installation team had learned not to migrate Windows desktops with video resolutions greater than standard VGA. The IS department installation revealed that icons frequently lost their colors when Windows desktops with high-resolution setups were migrated to NT. Normand instructed the installers to switch the Windows desktop to standard VGA and then reset to the higher resolution in NT after migrating the groups and icons.

Next, the team handled other configuration issues such as setting the machine name and configuring the TCP/IP protocol to use the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). Because Lyondell tags each computer with a unique, sequentially numbered barcode, the installation team used the barcode as the machine name. By using the barcode instead of a username, the IS operations staff avoided having to rename machines when employees transferred within the company.

Phase 2 also included assigning printers and creating customized logon scripts for each user and machine. Normand implemented a six-tiered logon strategy using standardized and customized NT command (.cmd) files. Everyone in Lyondell's enterprisewide domain executes the first standardized script. This script is useful when the whole company needs to initiate an activity for everyone on login. For example, CTI used this script early in the project to automatically and unobtrusively retrofit the installed users' NT Registries. The second script provides a site-customized logon. A Lyondell site is one of seven plant or main office locations. Lyondell has used the second script to flash an innovative, site-tailored safety reminder to employees when they log on. A third script provides standard drive connections (or "mappings," in the old Novell terminology) to shared data areas on servers. These connections are based on the employee's workgroup or department. To balance the email load among servers, a fourth script assigns a post office location for Microsoft Mail. A fifth script is personalized for each user's needs (e.g., to provide extra personal drive connections or set up special programs or environment needs). The sixth script, which is machine specific, typically redirects printer ports to local printers for DOS applications and ensures that the TEMP directory is empty at boot time. This multilayered logon script accommodates most logon needs, and it balances standardization and flexibility.

When CTI assigned each workstation to a domain during Phase 2, Normand and his technical team chose NT's Master Domain model. Each resource (e.g., workstations, servers, and printers) had membership in site-based domains. In contrast, the team established all user accounts in one, enterprisewide master domain. Because the site-based domains trust the master domain, users have one transportable logon, and site-based technical personnel can perform local hardware administration. So, Phase 2 established the security administration for the local machine. In the meantime, the technical team set up shared resources and groups on the servers and created user accounts.

After the first few installations, much of the installation work was repetitive and sometimes tedious. Also, because someone had to key in information, simple typos could cause a configuration to fail. To resolve these problems, Normand and his technical team turned to Windows NT APIs and a C compiler and created utilities to automate part of the installation. These utilities let CTI directly modify the NT Registry in a repeatable, automated way and replace the slow, error-prone, manual process. Later in the project, CTI developed additional utilities to automatically create, configure, and enable user accounts; set up home shares; and migrate data and email from the Novell servers to the new NT servers. These utilities saved countless hours in configuration work, improved the quality of the installation, and greatly reduced the amount of rework.

After Phase 2, which averaged 45 minutes per machine, the installation team again set each workstation to boot to DOS. This configuration let users continue work and didn't disturb their existing DOS, Windows, and Novell environment.

Quality Control
In addition to simplifying the implementation, the phased approach helped the project accomplish one of its critical goals--quality. Quality is a hallmark not only of Lyondell, but Normand demands it, too. His experience with Lyondell's first DOS-to-Windows conversion in 1992 convinced him that he needed a specific quality assurance (QA) procedure. So, he developed one as an integral part of the project.

With Phase 2 finished, the technical team's software tester booted the workstations to NT to test each DOS and Windows application. This testing identified applications that worked under NT and those that didn't. The software tester gave these test results to the technical team to find solutions.

Often, the solution was simply to contact software or hardware vendors for updated products. Sometimes, the solution meant reconfiguring NT; other times, the team had to reconfigure the application. The technical team spent many hours talking to Lyondell's Microsoft Premier Support line and combing through CompuServe forums and TechNet databases.

If Normand's team couldn't reconfigure an application to run under NT, members replaced it or put it on a list of problems needing a solution. The team made sure to ask each machine's user how important the application was. If applications that were crucial to the employee's job didn't work, the installation team reconfigured the workstation to dual boot NT and DOS/Windows. Although booting to DOS was inconvenient, users could move forward with the rest of the company in using NT, while using the old applications. As the project progressed, the installation team learned much more about configuring such applications, and of course, vendors began delivering 32-bit versions of their products.

Phase 3
Finally, CTI began the last phase of installation. Phase 3, or "flipping" the machine to NT, was an irreversible process. It involved replacing many 16-bit applications (e.g., Word, Excel, and Rumba) with 32-bit versions. Besides the dual-boot machines, Phase 3 included converting the DOS File Allocation Table (FAT) drive partitions to the new high-performance NT File System (NTFS).

CTI performed post-installation testing. This final QA check ensured that CTI did not release a machine for use until it worked as expected. The installation team completed a detailed QA checklist for each machine, and an inspector signed and dated the checklists.

Success and More
In summer 1995, Lyondell announced that it had purchased two polymer plants and a research facility--adding more than 250 workstations and several servers. Lewis asked Normand to replace all the workstations with new Compaq Pentium machines and include them in the NT project. Although CTI had to install these machines in a short time, the team's dedication, hard work, and efficient automation utilities let CTI absorb a 20% increase in scope and still finish the project on schedule. The team installed more than 1500 workstations and 40 servers with Windows NT in less than a year.

CTI has successfully completed Lyondell's NT project, and the company is enjoying its new, state-of-the-art, 32-bit system. Lyondell is working hard to re-engineer its business process, using SAP software as the catalyst. The IS operations managers are learning how to efficiently manage the new NT environment with its greatly enhanced capabilities. The CTI team, after a short rest, is looking for more NT installations.

As for Randy Lewis? He's busy planning the next steps in his vision of tomorrow and embracing the inevitable challenges it will bring.