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Executing GM's Massive IT Updates

The facts are fairly astonishing.

The facts are fairly astonishing. According to Mike Morton, director, Global Product Development, Information Systems & Services, General Motors, over three weekends this past spring, the automaker executed an upgrade of several of its UGS Teamcenter product lifecycle management software and NX design software (from UGS Corp., Plano, TX, www.ugs.com). OK. "Several" is an understatement. A gross understatement. Because the numbers he's talking about are on the order of:

  • 30,000 Teamcenter Automotive users
  • 26,000 Teamcenter Visualization users
  • 12,000 NX users (who happen to be in 19 different engineering centers around the world)

In addition to which, Morton says, "We sync about 10,000 items a night over 29 sites on a global network." Which means, if nothing else, that they have a considerable amount of practice when it comes to updating. An underlying factor that he says is paramount: "We don't want to disrupt vehicle programs."

Morton says that the vehicle manufacturer developed what is in effect a global bill of information technology (IT) for its product development program. This global bill was then instituted in the corporation's sites around the world. He emphasizes that this means the "same configuration of hardware and software" but not "identical." They've created templates for small, medium and large sites. Which means that there are, say, different boxes (smaller, larger), but common hardware and software. The templates and the commonality are key. This, apparently, is something that is not common. "Very few large-scale engineering companies have the level of the ‘bill of IT' that GM has," Morton says. "I've worked with a lot of the other OEMs, and I don't know of another that has the capability we have." And this isn't just the case in auto, because he says that when he talks with people in other industries, their reaction is that it is just not likely to happen in their companies because of the need to have a templated approach to hardware and software. "It's very hard to get people to buy into a global strategy," Morton remarks.

It's worth pointing out that not only does GM conduct these updates within its own organization, but with its key suppliers and joint venture companies, as well.

What's more, what happened this past spring is not something particularly out of the ordinary at GM. Morton explains that they conduct the updates twice a year. It's a case of a major and a minor: say a major update or Teamcenter and a minor of NX, or vice versa. Before any of this happens, there is significant testing to make sure that there will not be any problems before the downloading begins. "Every year seems to get more complicated because of the number of applications, and every year we add more sites," he says. But once again, the mandate not to cause any disruptions is paramount. Consequently, they start testing about six months before a deployment and run about 3,000 test cases to make sure that things will occur as is planned. Morton notes that while the upgrade in question took three weekends—two weekends, skipped one, then the final weekend—they've done the same sort of thing in just two.

One interesting aspect of the GM approach is that instead of installing the latest version of a software package, the general rule is to wait until there has been a modification to a release. That is, instead of implementing Teamcenter 9.0, they installed 9.1.

Morton admits that when this program was introduced, there was some pushback, resistance to change. After all, making things common within complex IT enterprises is anything but easy. However, once the templates are in place, then there are huge benefits realized. Think only of how a problem identified and resolved at one site can benefit all of the other sites because they're using common hardware and software. While this is mandated within GM, Morton notes, "I think that almost all of the major suppliers we've dealt with have adopted some or all of the practices internally. They see huge benefits to deployment without disruptions."

One of the things that Morton says they're working on at GM with UGS and other OEMs is a way to reduce the amount of data that is being replicated around the world. When you're talking about 450 terabytes of data, you're talking about some heavy loads on the infrastructure.—GSV