'486 Under the Hood

In the trenches

NeXT workstations were never in the running for the computer overhaul at 100 branch offices that Chrysler Financial began researching in early 1991. The Chrysler subsidiary's budget was simply too tight; corporate policy dictated that only commodity-priced '486 machines would be purchased. But software was another matter: The programming job was basically up for grabs.

After months of evaluating over 20 vendor offerings, PowerBuilder under Microsoft Windows looked like the early winner. Test development was already under way at the company's Southfield, Michigan, headquarters. Then a corporate planner who oversaw the only two NeXT machines at the larger corporation suggested the financial team give NeXTSTEP '486 a spin.

That turned out to be a wise idea. Mike Adelson, the branch automation and retail systems project manager who would eventually spearhead a project involving 2500 copies of NeXTSTEP '486 л the largest-ever commitment to object-oriented system software by a single organization л was skeptical at first. He figured the best thing he would get out of NeXT's sales visit would be some free training in client-server architecture. "But the more we saw of the software, it was filling holes we saw in other systems," says Adelson.

It wasn't easy for Adelson to see more, since NeXTSTEP wasn't among the company's standard options. When he hosted a NeXT class at Chrysler's corporate MIS offices, the mysterious black boxes had to be taken in the back door. But Adelson liked the tools bundled with the $995 list-priced NeXTSTEP, especially the TCP/IP software and e-mail; he liked NeXTSTEP's power; and he liked NeXT's tenacity. NeXT gave Chrysler a nearly full-time technician and "a few machines to work with at no obligation," says Adelson.

Before long, Chrysler Financial higher-ups were compelled to admit that they had hit on a reasonable way to turn off-the-shelf '486 machines into a custom, client-server network. The deal was signed last fall.

Custom NeXTSTEP '486 development at Chrysler Financial will begin with a retail application for the branch offices. The contract you sign when you buy a Chrysler LeBaron will run under NeXTSTEP. So will the maintenance of that contract; NeXTSTEP will calculate and track your monthly payments, for example.

When the pilot branches come on-line in June, according to NeXTSTEP consultant Joe Barello, each will have roughly two dozen '486 machines outfitted with NeXTSTEP, Ethernet cards, and a 48MB RAM server running Sybase with 3GB of storage. Communication to Chrysler Financial's IBM 3090 mainframes will be routed through the TCP/IP protocol and 3270 emulation.

The ambitious project, which is scheduled to be fully in place by the end of 1994, will have Chrysler Financial drawing information off its distant, Cobol mainframe database and then over to the local UNIX-based server. It isn't just the biggest NeXT or NeXTSTEP installation; company executives believe they are pushing the client-server envelope. While Chrysler Financial is only a subsidiary, it is no toddler: In 1992, it serviced $33.4 billion in car and other loans. "From what I know, this is the largest client-server project ever," says Adelson.

It will also be one of the longest technological leaps. Currently, Chrysler branch offices are outfitted with obsolete AT&T 3B2 minicomputers and dumb terminals. Branch workers can only open one window of information at a time. NeXT-STEP '486 will not only allow multiple-window operations; Chrysler Financial is convinced it will do it more easily than the competition.

The question is what longer-term implications this project may have for NeXT. Success at Chrysler could go a long way toward putting NeXTSTEP '486 on the map. It could also mean access for NeXT to other areas of Chrysler's business.

Of course, bucking tradition at the giant corporation will require more than good performance and a few back-door sales calls. But there are early indications that the rest of the company is eyeing the project closely. "They're waiting to see how it goes," says Adelson. "They're watching us."

by Jonathan Littman