Feature

IT drives Volkwagen's USP

In 1999, Volkswagen's top executives directed chief technology officer Claus Hohmann and his IT team to design and build an IT infrastructure that would flawlessly support a unique and highly customer-centric automotive theme park.

The idea was to create a spectacular and ever-changing marketing venue where visitors could experience state-of-the-art automotive technology. Buyers would pick up their new cars from one of the park's two gleaming 20-storey, fully automated glass-and-steel towers.

The Autostadt, or "car city", which is near Wolfsburg in Germany, celebrates its third birthday this month and has attracted more than six million visitors. Some 6,000 per day have toured its car museum and six brand-new pavilions, which offer a variety of interactive and computerised exhibits and web-based point-of-information terminals. They've dined in the park's restaurants and bars and shopped in its stores, paying for goods and services with computerised stored-value cards issued upon arrival. Perhaps most important, 349,000 of Autostadt's visitors have taken delivery of new cars. This is the theme park's key success indicator, since its ultimate goal is to wow every person who comes through Autostadt to the point of buying a new car.

"We are not a normal corporation where we have a headquarters and a shop floor. We are producing adventures and values, " says Hohmann, who came to the Autostadt from Volkswagen's Skoda unit in the Czech Republic. To do that, he says, "we have had to combine different worlds". These include Volkswagen's mainframe-based factory systems, proprietary Unix-based systems that run the car towers, plus various packaged and proprietary web-based applications written in Java for reservations, customer service and multimedia entertainment systems.

All of this information comes together at Autostadt over a three-tier information architecture called the Integrated Autostadt System (IAS). At its centre is Vignette's V6 Content Suite software, which functions as the web-based window through which information about car deliveries, event bookings and daily ticketing, plus reservations for the Autostadt-owned Ritz-Carlton Hotel, is drawn together. The system presents information to Autostadt and Volkswagen employees based on their predefined roles.

"This provides optimised process support and covers all data protection," explains chief information officer Michal Bruna. The architecture also provides internet and intranet services which allow customers and employees to access more general information.

Online interfaces link the Vignette server to a centralised Oracle8i database into which these various back-end systems funnel data. The interfaces use IBM's MQSeries middleware and BEA Systems' Tuxedo transaction monitor.

Until last month, the Oracle database ran on two Sun Enterprise 4500 database servers with Sun Cluster 2x software. But Autostadt swapped these out one night for Sun Fire 4800 servers running Solaris 9.0.

"The migration went so successfully and we were done so quickly that we even had to wait for the first test users [to come in the next morning]," says CIO Michal Bruna.

Burning the midnight oil on changes and fixes is one of the key IT challenges as well as a point of pride at Autostadt. All software and hardware upgrades and other changes must take place after visiting hours. That means after 10pm, since the park is open seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, and all systems must operate at 99.95% reliability for at least 12 hours a day.

Preparing for the server swap involved synchronising all transactions and having the new machines in place and tested so they could communicate with the network, explains Bruna. During the cutover, "there's no internet, no IAS, the Sun environment is dead," Bruna says.

Swapping servers

The good news is that thanks to extensive training of in-house IT staff and plenty of hands-on practice, Autostadt has been able to cut loose all external vendor consultants and contractors who helped build the initial Autostadt IT architecture.

Initially, 20 contractors from Gedas, a German systems integration firm partially owned by Volkswagen, helped develop and implement the systems.

What's more, Bruna says, because of the internal IT group's expertise, Autostadt has been able to downgrade service and support contracts with Sun and its other hardware providers.

On the software side, the Vignette system functions as the digital heart and soul of the IAS and Autostadt as a whole. "Vignette is not a solution itself, but it is our development environment, our tool kit for making applications and an area in which we now have huge know-how," Bruna says.

He estimates that Autostadt has between 500 and 600 templates on its Vignette servers. The Vignette system has two components: the content management system, which runs on two Sun Netra T1 servers, and the content delivery system, which runs on four Sun 420 servers. The IT staff include three full-time Vignette developers, who receive two to three weeks of advanced Vignette training each year.

Autostadt began using Vignette StoryServer Version 4.2 in June 2000. A key selling point was its use of templates to separate content and format as well as its overall ease of use. Vignette developers handle the design and associated back-end data calls and connections for all templates, which non-technical users can then populate with changing web page content.

One of the biggest integration challenges is negotiating the IAS's sophisticated security mechanisms "to pull all of the information I need to publish to the right people", says Vignette developer Uwe Hollatz.

To get production manufacturing information from Volkswagen's mainframe system, for example, the Autostadt uses RVS, a system to share files to authenticated users over a remote directory.

"The data structure of these files is known, so I can write a filter in Tool Command Language to parse the files and store the results in our Oracle database. From this database, I have all the possibilities to publish the data to the channels that are needed because the Vignette system uses this database as the content database for its delivery applications," Hollatz says.

The Autostadt's various channels include two completely new websites, the POI terminals scattered throughout the park and an intranet.

The ability to separate content and format means that new web pages can be produced quickly and easily, with a minimum of specialist skills. This, in turn, allows for more content contributors which, Hohmann notes, is critical to Autostadt's mission of providing an ever-changing venue to Autostadt's physical and digital visitors.

Since its opening, Autostadt has migrated to Vignette V6 Content Suite, which uses a newer TCL interpreter and has several new and improved functions, including services to build reports and the ability to dock onto a servlet engine such as Apache Software, Foundation's Tomcat or BEA's WebLogic to deliver Java applications. These small servlet applications, usually written in Java, enhance the display and delivery of web pages.

The new websites include www.autostadt.de, where consumers can buy tickets, reserve a hotel room or learn more about the theme park and educational and entertainment events, and www.autosphere.autostadt.de, which features flash animations, films and music for visitors with a high-speed Integrated Services Digital Network or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line connection.

Both sites are populated with content from the Vignette server and were completed by the three in-house Vignette developers, who worked on them full time for six months.

Guy Crease, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group, says Autostadt has put a unique twist on content management by doing it in such a "strategic marketing fashion". He also describes Autostadt's "unified approach" to content management as "quite rare".

Typically, Crease says, large organisations have multiple content management systems, with different business units, regional offices and country groups developing idiosyncratic sites internally and externally.

Such a reaction is in line with Autostadt's business goal, which is to stand out from the crowd by offering visitors a one-of-a-kind experience. "The danger here," says Hohmann, "would be becoming a normal corporate office."

The Autostadt IT Project

The challenge: Design and build an IT infrastructure to support a unique automotive theme park and a new-car delivery centre operating with 99.95% uptime at least 12 hours a day. Create internet-based applications; integrate with existing mainframe systems.

Key technologies: Vignette V6 Content Suite; Oracle8i database; IBM MQSeries middleware and BEA Systems Tuxedo transaction monitor; Sun Microsystems servers running Solaris; Cisco networking gear.

The cost: $500m (£309m). "Cheaper than Matrix: Reloaded," says CIO Michal Bruna.

The payoff: About 349,000 of Autostadt's visitors have left with new VWs. Customer satisfaction ratings consistently exceed 98%. In three years, Autostadt has never lost any data nor experienced any significant network or systems problems.

Julia King writes for Computerworld


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This was first published in August 2003

 

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