Thousands of HP 3000s around the world manage manufacturing, but not many preside over an assembly line where the product consists of digital signals and is delivered by satellite to television stations across North America. That's the just in time process that's controlled at Cycle Sat, a $40 million distributor of commercial materials with 550 network affiliates.
Television stations broadcast commercials to maintain their revenues, and Cycle Sat is the first company to provide an automated pipeline of broadcast material for the stations. The system runs on three HP 3000s and a client-server application hosted on an unassuming PC.
"I draw a rough analogy to a just in time manufacturing system," said Scott O'Brien, manager of Information Systems for the communications network based in Forrest City, Iowa. O'Brien chose HP 3000s to feed more than one million commercials a year to TV stations across the US, using digital controls for same-day delivery.
"Basically the same day we create the product, we deliver the product," O'Brien said. "We don't really inventory a feed for next week."
A Video Fed-Ex
Commercial air time is one of the most expensive media purchases, and the cost often drives producers to work up to the last minute perfecting ads. Cycle Sat makes it possible for ad agencies and production companies to deliver their best effort within hours of air time, relying on the HP 3000s to ensure the delivery is scheduled and verify transmissions.
The HP 3000s -- a Series 957 for primary order processing, a 937 for financials and functions from the company's Memphis uplink facility, and a Series 927 development platform -- use a system written first in COBOL, then later in Speedware. Quest software's NetBase maintains system redundancy for maximum uptime, and the TurboIMAGE database is managed by using Adager tools. Callback/3000 provides around-the-clock operations management, and the data is archived using Taurus Software's Warehouse.
"The 3000 is the data-gathering facility for the system," O'Brien said. Customers are the agencies and companies that prepare the commercials, called "spots." Some customers dial direct into the 3000 to enter ad orders and traffic instructions, the information that designates times to air the spots and the stations selected. Other customers use Relacs, a PC-based package developed by Cycle Sat. Relacs, pulls down a subset of the IMAGE database into the PC or network to do order entry off-line. Files are then transmitted back to the HP 3000 using a Value Added Network such as EasyLink.
The 3000 then prepares the orders for the Cycle Sat Daily Feed, a broadcast of as many as 200 different commercials to the designated TV stations. A patented technology called Cycle Cipher controls video recorders in the stations during the transmission, turning the recorders off and on at designated times to capture only the spots needed at each TV station.
Staff in the operations area of Cycle Sat use the HP 3000 to build these Daily Feeds, verifying that all commercials have been received from agencies and that each meets a quality standard. The 3000's instructions get fed into a massive video cartridge system where each spot sits on a digital cartridge. A PC-based application acts as a go-between, with the HP 3000 on one side and the cartridge system on the other side.
Only HP 3000s
In the 10 years of its service, Cycle Sat has never used any other system than an HP 3000 to manage the feed process. "We were a very small company at the start, but we had very aggressive growth expectations," O'Brien said. "Scalability was a real key in my system selection, and it was a very easy-to-use system. I came from the IBM mainframe environment."
O'Brien's background in mainframes led him to build an ultra-reliable system for Cycle Sat, an essential part of a network with deliveries each day. "Uptime was critical for the datacenter, and we had to be prepared to be a 24-by-7 operation. NetBase was a very solid component in our ability to guarantee uptime for our users."
The HP 3000 also generates proof of delivery notices for agencies sending spots, and customer service operations handle calls between Cycle Sat stations. Re-feeds get scheduled through the HP 3000 for any commercials not received at top quality or to handle any problems from the stations.
A large frame relay network connects sites in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Plano, Texas and Memphis with the company's headquarters in Forrest City. The Memphis site is the home of the largest non-broadcast video duplicating facility in the US.
Given the range of what the Cycle Sat systems have to perform, O'Brien needed a flexible approach to his application development tools. He's using a mix of third and fourth generation languages, but the largest number of applications are in a 4GL.
"We've rewritten 90 percent of our COBOL applications in Speedware," he said, "and there are a few applications still in COBOL and some in C during the build process -- because of all the sorting that's efficient in C."
Cycle Sat doesn't keep orders in a live database for more than 90 days at a time, so the company archives its information using Warehouse. The HP 3000s access between 12-14 Gb of data on each system, including data shadowed from other systems in the Cycle Sat network.
The company did recently acquire an HP 9000, "but not because the HP 3000s weren't doing all we need," O'Brien said. Cycle Sat bought out a competitor running a Pick operating system on a Honeywell, and the 9000 will run the Pick operating system to use the applications written by the competitor's MIS staff.
O'Brien plans to partner the HP 3000 with the 9000, "because I love IMAGE and the strength of the database and the things we can do there. We'll be able to do some two- or three-tiered client-server applications." The company will develop some intranet applications as well, using a browser to navigate between ordering and customer service documents located across several of the HP servers. "We can use the strength of our HP 3000s, and partner with some of the things the 9000 can do," O'Brien said.
Like the catalog ordering business where the 3000 continues to show its strength, Cycle Sat's system lets its customers place product late and still get it delivered the next day. The high availability and complete automation lets a motion picture company get the word out about its Oscar wins on the next morning's talk shows.
"We take in commercials from some of our large movie customers as late as midnight and have them at the TV stations by 6 AM," O'Brien said.