Moving from a Mainframe to a Client Environment

by Ina Woodson-Brown

A number of years ago I had a visionary boss, W.D. Penniman, who wanted the AT&T Bell Laboratories Library and Information Services (IS) to become the electronic window to the AT&T world, which today comprises 300,000 people around the globe. He had the IS managers and staff sit down and talk about what could be done. Consequently, the managers did exactly what Rita S. Ayers described in her article at the beginning of this special section: they established a vision. The managers looked at the organization's strengths and weaknesses. Because AT&T participates in the total quality process, the managers also examined what the IS customers said they wanted. This led the managers to the conclusion that technology really was our primary strength and partnering with our research fellows, we found out that we even had resources. Next, the managers prepared a plan and recognized that IS needed funding to back up this vision. This article will describe what has happened as a result of the creation of the vision and collection of the financial resources to make it happen.

AT&T right now is in the process of downsizing and consolidating, reorganizing and reengineering. Typically, when we talk about technologies we talk about what is new. At AT&T, I believe, we have all of these in place in one or another part of the corporation. Many years ago, Bell Laboratories was known to have 2.1 terminals per researcher on each desk. But did those terminals talk to one another? Were they on the same system? Just as in other organizations, the answer was no to both questions. Therefore in the AT&T Library Network we decided to serve as a link to the various parts of AT&T and in our small way have an impact on the rest of its population.

AT&T as a Technical Company

AT&T information managers are a part of the research organization, which gives them a strategic position and enables them to achieve optimal results. They are automatically linked to the information architecture of the company, which they have accepted as a means to an end, not the end. The IS managers have introduced and used new technologies long before they have been adapted elsewhere. In the present organization, IS customers still want physical as well as electronic access. So the service we provide includes physical libraries and electronic access to the desktops. IS has unlimited opportunities to use technology because others in the corporation are in the process of creating it.

What Are the Technological Challenges for IS?

The IS managers are working hard to create innovative products and services that our customers can afford. As we talk about the customer/supplier relationships, budgets are being changed; organizations are coming, organizations are going. Our customers no longer have to buy information services from AT&T and are becoming very savvy in their buying choices. Our customers want us to give them more for their dollar.

Although our focus is on service, we are part of a corporation that still manufactures, and IS must be part of that process as well. Revenue is flowing. Many company acquisitions have allowed AT&T to do well in the market. But it does not give IS endless financial resources. The organization continues to change financially and structurally. Several years ago I realized that downsizing is right sizing  and we are still in search of what the right size is. Reorganization will continue.

The major business of AT&T used to be making telephones. Now AT&T wants to be an information management and movement company. What does this mean? It means that AT&T has to divest itself of the businesses that are not appropriate and acquire new ones. With the concern for information management and movement, one would think that AT&T would come to Information Services for everything. But no, we are a content-driven organization. We use technology to drive that content. But the company says, "we haven't thought about that." The company is still channeltransportation vehicle driven as far as communication are concerned.

So What Have We Done?

Like many organizations, the Bell Laboratories IS was traditionally mainframe-based. A couple of years ago, we began to question our ability to manage our computing process when our goal was to drive costs down, but the cost of mainframing was rising. We then went from a mainframe environment to a miniframe environment, and we used equipment from several wellknown manufacturers. Even AT&T had a product we used for a while, but it provided insufficient capacity. The IS, with its libraries providing 24-hour service at most locations, was just too big, handling too many transactions. We then switched to C programming in UNIX, an AT&T product. We have been driven to be ahead of the trends and to be proactive.

So what is happening now? Do we give our customers the access they really want? They want quicker and cheaper access, and they want it at their desk. This year, after many years of planning and much hard effort by my predecessors, we actually implemented a clientserver environment. What does that mean? We talk about using Sun workstations, and still use our C and UNIX to deliver our services. Some people refer to that as an open architecture. This architecture allows us to take a base driver of a system and port it to whatever machine needs to be accessed. We are not hardware driven. We have become content driven.

To get full text to the desktops of the clients, the AT&T Library Network has developed two applications that allow the use of technology to meet the customers' requirements: Right Pages and Ferret Browser. These applications include graphical, bytemapped images  a first for the IS network.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Our clientserver configuration is still being implemented and is our immediate future. Other technologies will emerge to make the clientserver outdated. Not knowing what the new technologies will be I must accept what is available today and use it with our current knowledge.

I believe wireless communication is the future. AT&T intends to be a major force in that area. Many of its competitors also intend to drive technological developments for increased customer access. The focus should depend on what clients want and need. In our case, because we view technology as our strength, we will be out there trying out various technologies. Fortunately, when IS has a strategic plan and has the support from upper management it makes one's day-to-day life much easier. In our case, we have the support of management, and IS has utilized all available resources to undertake these activities.


For us the challenge will be to continue to enjoy upper management's support, because just as my peers change from time to time, the managers to whom IS reports also change. In a dynamic and moving organization, it is important to know that the IS customers say they still need and want us.

A clientserver technology permits the IS to improve how it acquires and maintains its serials collection. The information managers are in the middle of the new process improvement for serials, which will cost our IS users when it is implemented. We will then learn if the customers are willing to pay for the new accessibility. The customers say that they want to have serial access at the desk and to know what is in the library. They want to know how and where to find what they need  and they want it now.

Despite all the changes, I believe that AT&T's future is bright. The corporation is strong in the markets in which it plays. Wireless technology, will be, I think, just another plus for us.

Ina Woodson-Brown is manager of Libraries and Information Services at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey.