IGA SHIFTING SYSTEM TO A NETWORK OF PCS

CHICAGO -- IGA here is installing a personal computer-based local area network this month that will lay the groundwork for streamlined operations and enhanced communications with its wholesaler-owners next year.IGA plans to switch off its mainframe system and transfer all its data processing applications to an open-architecture platform by Jan. 1. This fall, the company will finish converting data

CHICAGO -- IGA here is installing a personal computer-based local area network this month that will lay the groundwork for streamlined operations and enhanced communications with its wholesaler-owners next year.

IGA plans to switch off its mainframe system and transfer all its data processing applications to an open-architecture platform by Jan. 1. This fall, the company will finish converting data and installing new software to meet that target date, said James Anderson, assistant controller.

The revamping of IGA's information systems technology, he said, is a necessary step for the alliance, which comprises 19 wholesaler-owners that together serve about 4,000 supermarkets worldwide.

IGA's proprietary mainframe system could no longer deliver the data processing power and speed the alliance needs, Anderson said. "The integration and movement of data was virtually impossible. Creating data from outside our current system was also virtually impossible."

The first stage of the project, installing a personal computer LAN, was completed earlier this month. It will be used for billing, order entry and other data processing functions. The second stage will involve setting up a Unix-based business server to handle financial applications.

The new system configuration should deliver invaluable flexibility, added Anderson, who serves on IGA's Team 2000, created 18 months ago to find new technologies to improve systems performance and customer service.

"What we found was that technology was evolving across our alliance at such a rapid rate that, many times, we were unable to keep up. The old system is close to 10 years old," he told SN.

IGA's proprietary IBM System/36 operates on software that

had been customized so often over the years that accessing data became difficult, explained Nicolas Liakopulos, office automation coordinator at IGA and a member of Team 2000.

"They customized the software so much that if you wanted to run a few things, you couldn't because there were different routines here and there," he said. "It wasn't doing the job, so we'd have to call programming support to do it."

High maintenance was another "pitfall" IGA and Team 2000 identified, Anderson said. Since IBM discontinued production of System/36, which predates the IBM AS/400, maintenance costs climbed.

Anderson said the alliance could not improve service with its existing closed proprietary system. "What we needed to do was to go to an open system that would allow us to modify and enhance [applications] very quickly and on the fly."

In addition to systems flexibility, Anderson said the alliance will enhance its services by reducing time-consuming and error-prone manual functions.

A top priority, he said, will be the compilation of a comprehensive data base of the 4,000 stores in the alliance. "It's something we do annually to get a picture of the alliance, and right now that process involves a survey that arrives in various forms -- such as facsimile and mailed questionnaires -- and has to be manually keyed in."

Most of the information required for the annual survey, Anderson said, is already available on computers at its wholesaler-owners. To facilitate the flow of data in the field, IGA will equip its field teams with laptop computers capable of sending faxes and electronic mail and accessing the data base here.