Moving to Wintel: Big iron

Last October, Gary Clark looked into La-Z Boy Inc.'s data center and pondered two pressing concerns: rack upon rack of network servers that were multiplying like rabbits and the mounting costs of maintaining that rapidly growing server population.

The furniture maker's data centers currently house about 200 primarily two- and four-processor servers from Compaq Computer Corp. Clark, director of IT services at La-Z Boy, estimates that his server farm population was growing at an unruly rate of four to 10 servers per month.

But that was last year. Today, the US$2.3 billion manufacturer of kickback recliners is culling its herd of servers through consolidation. Instead of running Microsoft Corp.'s SQL Server 2000 applications on individual Compaq ProLiant 1600 and ML 370 servers, the furniture company is replacing those machines with a single high-end workhorse from Unisys Corp., Clark says.

"I'm trying to manage more [computing needs] with the same number of resources," Clark says. "As opposed to continually adding servers, I can manage the same box with fewer people. It's also allowing me to put more data in one place and manage one box as opposed to 12 or 16 boxes."

Like a handful of other early adopters, La-Z Boy is making the shift to high-end machines that are optimized for Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating systems and built with Intel Corp.'s microprocessors, and thus is testing whether the Wintel architecture deserves a place in the enterprise.

The concept is simple: Pack the box with up to 32 CPUs to give it greater processing power. Pair that processing power with Microsoft's heavy-duty server operating systems, such as Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Datacenter Server, and the results amount to a back-office contender to compete with Unix-based big iron. This can be especially appealing for companies with Microsoft-centric computing environments.

"Some IT managers are keen on larger, scalable systems for Windows because they require large, centralized databases across a distributed environment," says Thomas Manter, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston-based market research firm. "There is also a lot of consolidation occurring, because IT managers are keen on bringing administrative and maintenance costs under control."

La-Z Boy's newest workhorse is the ES7000 server from Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys. The machine supports up to 32 processors, but Monroe, Mich.-based La-Z Boy is using an eight-processor configuration that's divided into two four-way partitions. Clark expects the server consolidation project to cut maintenance costs significantly by reducing the number of machines within the data center.

Dollars and Sense

Citing a need to consolidate its two- and four-way processor servers from Unisys and Hewlett-Packard Co., Commonwealth Financial Network also made the ES7000 the centerpiece of its data center, says Ed Bell, CIO at the Waltham, Mass.-based investment brokerage firm. Besides the benefits gained by whittling down the number of servers Commonwealth must manage, Bell says, the promise of scalability was the motivating factor in shifting to the Unisys box.

"I didn't do it just for economic reasons," he says. "I did it for capacity."

The ability to partition processors makes the system scalable, Bell adds. With partitioning, one machine can concurrently execute separate applications on different sets of CPUs. Performance also gets a boost because these systems offer higher I/O throughput.

"It's like having to water the entire lawn with a bunch of sprinklers and one small hose," Bell says of the slower I/O capability of servers with limited CPU power. "We're crunching a lot of information, so my lawn just got really big. It's like having 10 times the hose capacity opened up."

The ES7000 box supports 48 I/O channels per domain partition at Commonwealth. The system manages a database of several hundred accounts within the mission-critical data warehousing application on the same machine, Bell reports.

Getting more out of a single box is also critical at La-Z Boy. Clark anticipates expanding the processor capacity of the ES7000 by adding additional Intel 900-MHz processors, instead of purchasing new commodity servers. "We're a manufacturing company, and this was a more aggressive approach than we've taken [in the past]," he says. "We expect to expand to 12 [additional] processor partitions in the next three to four months."

And while the smaller, less-expensive Compaq machines will remain the "workhorse" server of choice in La-Z Boy's data centers, Clark says the ES7000 offers an alternative that provides greater horsepower combined with lower support and maintenance costs.

Test, Test, Test

But while there are performance and consolidation benefits to the Wintel-based Unisys machines, making the shift isn't easy.

"Windows is more robust, but there are lingering doubts about scalability and reliability," says Rich Partridge, vice president of enterprise servers at D.H. Brown Associates Inc., a market research firm in Port Chester, NY.

Many users have a "not-so-fond remembrance of the blue screens of death, so Microsoft has an uphill battle to prove that it has a reliable operating environment," Partridge says.

"The market isn't pounding on the doors to move quickly to this type of solution," says Aberdeen's Manter. "Microsoft is still overcoming the history of NT's [lack of] reliability. Windows 2000 has by far overcome that problem, but users are cautious about moving to Windows from a Unix or mainframe operation."

Manter recommends that IT organizations invest in thorough quality assurance and pilot testing before migrating Windows-based applications into the back office or to new high-end machines from Unisys or other vendors.

Clark's systems support team began by conducting 90 days' worth of quality assurance testing. The migration of 12 Compaq servers onto one ES7000 server began in May but won't be completed until the end of this month.

"Right now, we're not running anything mission-critical to our core business [on the ES7000]\. There are not any manufacturing applications on that box today," Clark laments. Instead, the Wintel-based machine handles La-Z Boy's systems management and asset management SQL databases, some customer support data and help desk management applications.

Still, Clark says, the move to bigger iron has been worth it because server partitioning on the ES7000 allows La-Z Boy to run several separate databases on the partitions without having to merge those databases. He says he also expects that the ES7000, which costs less than $500,000, will continue functioning in the data center for about eight years, instead of the typical three-year run of most lower-end network servers.

Unlike Clark, Bell says the customer management and data warehousing applications running on his ES7000 servers are absolutely mission-critical.

"It's how our 1,000 financial advisers look at client [histories] and establish financial trends," Bell says.

Secure server partitioning made the difference for one user.

Health eConnex (HeC), a transaction-processing health care company in Park Ridge, Ill., replaced 10 Compaq ProLiant DL360 servers with one ES7000 machine last January, says Ray Peddin, HeC's executive vice president.

Peddin says partitioning enabled the ES7000 to support more concurrent users and applications, as well as provide backup processing for mission-critical applications. HeC performs electronic medical record management, claims processing and practice management for 40,000 health care clients, so the importance of secure partitioning can't be overstated.

"It gives us the capability to scale within a single architecture, as opposed to having a whole room full of servers," says Peddin. "Client separation is critically important. Partitions are primarily for that functionality and fail-over. We cannot be down -- period."

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