Talkative customers help firm see apps for the trees

While the application service provider market hasn't got close to reaching the heights predicted of it a few years ago, word-of-mouth referrals have helped timber consultancy PF Olsen make a healthy business of its appCentral ASP division.

While the application service provider market hasn’t got close to reaching the heights predicted of it a few years ago, word-of-mouth referrals have helped timber consultancy PF Olsen make a healthy business of its appCentral ASP division.

Rotorua-based PF Olsen started offering application hosting and outsourcing services for other forestry companies in 1999 and recently picked up its first non-forestry customer, Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The change to IT service supplier happened, almost by accident, when three years ago the company decided to revamp its system. Rotorua developers and integrators Integral did the job, developing forestry management and financial systems using the Magic development environment with a Btrieve database.

To deliver the new applications to remote branches throughout the country PF Olsen computing systems manager Grant Alexander decided to take the virtual private network approach and use a Citrix thin-client architecture. While Integral was developing applications for PF Olsen another forestry company asked it to develop a similar system. Integral suggested it talk to PF Olsen, which began hosting the other company. It in turn introduced another organisation wanting the same service.

In 2000 PF Olsen set up appCentral as a separate division. Alexander says it wasn’t difficult to demonstrate to the chief executive how the business model would help him deliver higher quality service at a lower cost to PF Olsen users.

AppCentral now has 120 users in total, 50 from PF Olsen and the remainder divided between Hardwood Management, the Forest Industry Engineering Association, Core Contracting and the hospital, which also learned about appCentral from Integral.

AppCentral hosts all of QE Hospital’s applications from patient management systems to Microsoft Office and library software. Users access appCentral either via the internet or through a VPN. Uses Citrix Nfuse to give clients access through the web.

Citrix NFuse is a three-tier solution that includes a Citrix MetaFrame server component, a web server component, and a Citrix ICA (independent computing architecture) client component with a web browser. Customers are charged monthly and pricing is based on 80% of the cost of a configuration that the customer would have used to deliver a similar system.

QE Hospital finance manager Sue Marsh says the hospital’s main motivation for going to an ASP was lowering the cost of hardware and support.

Alexander says ASPs have to manage customer expectations. “They have to realise they won’t be able to have full multimedia, all-singing and all-dancing computing. This is business computing.”

He says ASPs have to often also connect legacy hardware to the network,

and deal with “third-world” telecomms service.

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