Sharpe remained a technologist though. As an Application Architect at Teleplan International, Sharpe played a key role in the recent go-live of MariaDB, a project that helped Teleplan's IT goals of speed and flexibility. Recently, Sharpe filled me in on the go-live, and how Teleplan's gears its IT culture towards their customers.
For Teleplan, customer-first is non-negotiable, given their focus is after-market service, support, and repair for the electronics industry. They've grown to 5,000 employees, $317 million in revenues, and service centers that reach over 95 countries.
An IT culture shaped by customer interaction
Teleplan's IT culture is more customer-facing than most, and for good reason. Sharpe told me that his team used to be involved in high volume service like hard drives and monitors. They always had the ability to visit their users. Those visits shaped his thinking:
It gave us a picture that was, I think, very, very different to a standard software developer that doesn't get close enough to the user.
A few years ago, Sharpe had an intense period of customer contact:
I spent a good couple of months almost setting myself up as a little electronic call center. We'd ship out a replacement printer. It was all about getting that broken one back in without any kind of credit card swipe or anything like that.
Teleplan sent out return labels, but getting those broken printers back came down to goodwill. Customers told Sharpe in no uncertain terms why they couldn't ship those printers back, as in 'I'm in the hospital,' 'I can't wait all day for a courier':
The things that you learn from that feedback motivates you to come up with solutions... We're always asking ourselves,"Where can we take out problems from this process to make it run better, so that we get units in quicker, so that we get them diagnosed faster, so that we get parts ordered quicker."
If you're Sharpe, that means optimizing your development and database platforms to become faster - and more responsive to customer needs. Recently, Sharpe's team did just that.
The quest for a lean and flexible database
Teleplan's IT systems are built around a fifteen-year-old homegrown application, affectionately known as e-TRAC. e-TRAC, which stands for "electronic tracking, reporting and control," is built as the technical glue that links together Teleplan's people and systems, helping them to serve customers with better information.
Initially, e-TRAC ran on Borland Interbase. Buy there were problems with database corruptions and downtime. As e-TRAC grew in volume and customer base, that downtime was unacceptable. Teleplan migrated to Oracle in 2009. "That was like going from your Mini Metro tiny car up to your Ferrari, both in performance and in price," recalls Sharpe. Oracle solved the downtime problem, but, as per Sharpe, "Oracle performs very well, but to get that last bit of performance, you need people that really, really understand Oracle."
In 2014, Sharpe's team began another database search. They wanted something lean and flexible, which brought them to MariaDB. MariaDB's pricing was definitely in their ballpark. And the ease of administration stood out. "It's something that could be managed by a developer," says Sharpe, though they do have a data center team group in Prague that handles some of the admin chores now. Getting corporate approval wasn't hard: "It wasn't a difficult decision. It was seen as the way to go."
Go-live and beyond - support matters
The implementation was a year-long affair, but not because of the database. The problem was migrating all the software. Sharpe called that migration a "massive, major project." On the MariaDB side, "we haven't had a single issue." Go-live happened 16 weeks ago - enough time for some early results. Sharpe cited one report that used to take fifteen seconds to run. With MariaDB, it ran in less than a second:
And that's without us doing anything clever... We've got a lot better - or the same - performance without doing anything big about it.
MariaDB's support team has been a welcome contrast to prior:
With InterBase for example, we had the ability to raise support calls, but when your system is down, and it takes you X amount of hours to get the support call, and then the first questions are, "Oh have you rebooted the system?" That kind of rubbish. You fixed it yourself by the time you got any decent response generally.
Teleplan is on MariaDB's standard support plan; they also bought some remote DBA support to get through the migration, and to help with re-coding functions that didn't translate directly from Oracle to MariaDB. "The support was just absolutely amazing," says Sharpe. Example: their need to store a thirty-two character identity against each master record to give end users access - something MariaDB doesn't offer out of the box.
In about twenty-four hours, the MariaDB people had found something on the Internet and redeveloped it slightly to give us what we want. We had a look at it; it wasn't quite right. They'd went back, redid it and, all of a sudden, sorted - done.
The wrap - speed, agility, and cost
Though MariaDB is definitely cheaper, it will take a while for Sharpe's team to measure all the cost savings, including database license savings as prior agreements expire. "Cost savings of up to 80 percent compared with our previous database platforms," which Sharpe passed along to me after the interview, sounds pretty darn good for now. Sharpe also sees those two happy buzzwords, speed and agility, coming through. What's next? Constant improvement, of course:
Our challenge now is, as always, adding new features to our processes. We're always looking for ways of making things better. Again, MariaDB helps us do that because now, we've got a database that's flexible, and gives us the ability to add new features easily.
Sharpe says MariaDB helps them honor their customer vows:
When you have something that breaks, and you phone up a call center, how well does that process work? Ideally, you want to get a replacement get it repaired as quickly as possible, and to have information along the way. For me, it's always about trying to provide that information to the end users wherever we can. With our bigger customers, we're giving them data, always looking to provide a better process. Continuous improvement is really what we're looking for.
I'll be interested to see if Teleplan moves more applications on MariaDB, or if they build their own apps on top. Time will tell.