IN a major network upgrade, international courier giant DHL Worldwide Express has centralised its telecommunications switching operations for the region in Singapore. The new system, which will allow for the expansion of network services, as well as the option to start integrating more multimedia-type options on its network, effectively makes Singapore the central data capture point for DHL's vast communications infrastructures. The DHL network, which is made up of both private leased lines and the international 'virtual' private networks of international telecoms carriers, is one of the largest data network operations in the world. In a separate development, DHL has also announced the first integrated system of electronic data interchange for customs clearance in China, in this first instance through the customs officialdom in Shanghai. DHL said the new system should speed customs clearances through Shanghai by up to two days. Though other companies have used electronic systems with Shanghai authorities to a lesser extent, DHL is the first to integrate such a system into its regional front end. It provides front-end software that lets a shipper directly supply shipment information from the point of origin to DHL in Shanghai, where the integrated platform allows for a one-stop interchange with Shanghai customs. On flight arrival, dutiable shipments meeting paperless clearance criteria are customs pre-cleared and ready for recovery and immediate delivery by DHL. Meanwhile DHL's Asia-Pacific network computing manager, Bill Stout, said that although the data-switching activities of the company had been centralised in Singapore, the 'central-gravity of the company remains in Hong Kong', with the headquarters operations of the company remaining in the territory. Although as a whole DHL's operational structure was is highly decentralised with individual company organisations maintaining a high degree of autonomy, Mr Stout said 'it simply made sense to have a single [data] switch'. Data traffic volumes through Singapore were enormous by any yardstick and operated on a near-realtime basis. Having a single switch allowed the company the advantage of a single point at which to 'capture' data. The single switch also simplified the over-monitoring of the network. 'We can supervise everything that goes on from Tokyo, to Bombay to Sydney,' Mr Stout said. Network monitoring at DHL is based on Hewlett-Packard's OpenView software. In addition to up-grading its network infrastructure from an X.25-based protocol to IP-based (internet protocol) systems based on Cisco routers and Frame Relay, DHL is also experimenting with some multimedia technologies for certain specific in-house tasks that may be expanded to include services available to customers. For example, the company recently established an ISDN link between its Hong Kong and Singapore operations for use in a pilot dial-up video conferencing facility between information technology departments. The company is also exploring the possibility of using the Internet for customers to access shipping information directly, specifically by setting up a home page on the World Wide Web (WWW). DHL's Hong Kong-based regional director of information technology, Les Hales, said the company was continuing to expand its network geographically and to expand the capabilities of the network and the areas in which its network infrastructure can be leveraged. As it stands today, the DHL information network is one of the largest operated by a private company anywhere in the world. It is one of the largest measured geographically, and with more than 1,500 people directly employed in information technology, one of the largest by headcount. The centralising of data switching in Singapore went live on March 16, with the whole process due to be completed by the end of the month, Mr Hales said.