IBM Users Tap Clusters to Pump Out Performance

FRAMINGHAM (03/24/2000) - Jack Reynolds gave up trying to lease an S/390 before he started discussing the financing.

While he was attracted to the mainframe's legendary power, reliability and scalability to run his start-up ISP franchise company, Quik International, the S/390's equally legendary price tag was beyond the means of his fledgling company. Although he gave the mainframe serious consideration, he felt his firm was not big enough to swallow the cost of a mainframe, which can run into millions of dollars.

Instead, Reynolds settled on three RS/6000 H50s clustered together - and found that they do the job just fine.

The RS/6000 isn't exactly slumming compared with the S/390. Reynolds has found that the RS/6000 H70 costs around $60,000 per month total for the lease and in-house labor. For that, he says, he can use a single box that handles a few thousand IP addresses, 10,000 Web sites, 25,000 domains and 30,000 e-mail accounts, and run Web applications for six months without a problem.

Quik, like other IBM Corp. small to midrange server users, is finding that a hunk of Big Iron isn't always needed. And while the idea of swapping out a mainframe for a powerful server is not news, what is perhaps revolutionary is IBM's willingness to provide mainframe power and reliability by clustering its other servers. IBM says users who choose not to use a mainframe but rather another IBM box are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and getting mainframe levels of performance. And the company is providing the technology to do so.

Take Staples Inc., which is running key business applications on six AS/400 servers strapped together. The Framingham, Mass., retailer of office goods is riding a growth wave, with a new store opening every 50 hours. However, instead of switching over to a central mainframe to handle the increased traffic, the company is sticking with its AS/400s.

"To a certain extent, I would say we have an architecture that delivers service levels to our business that are equivalent to what we would get from a mainframe, at a fraction of the cost," says Max Ward, an IT manager at Staples.

The company runs its core retail applications on a half-dozen AS/400s linked together in two groups of three via IBM's Opticonnect technology.

The Opticonnect technology lets users attach AS/400s directly bus-to-bus with a 1G byte/sec fiber-optic cable. If one server in an Opticonnect cluster crashes, its partner box will pick up the workload.

The cluster can also be configured so one machine functions as a database server, which can then be accessed by a clustered application server running back-office or other types of software.

Over the past few years, Ward says, the AS/400 has started to "scale through the roof" - one cluster can handle up to 10,000 users accessing it simultaneously.

Moreover, IBM is adding even more power to the popular server line. Using the AS/400 lets Staples save about one-third the costs related to technical support staff that the mainframe would require, says Dave Guillotte, a Staples network architect.

Also, the AS/400 line has a greater variety of prepackaged software applications, Guillotte says. One of the problems with a mainframe is that it requires its owner to put a lot of effort into developing custom-tailored logic, he says.

"You have to hire an army of people to develop the [mainframe] software needed to run a large retail enterprise, and we decided to not go through with it."

Quik's Reynolds says when he was first considering the mainframe in 1997, he felt the S/390 platform didn't have enough Internet applications available. He believed, therefore, it would have been necessary to use an RS/6000 on the mainframe's front end as a Web server.

So Reynolds opted to go with several clustered high-end RS/6000 H70s running AIX, IBM's flavor of Unix. The boxes share the same RAID disk arrays via a Fibre Channel link. If one server in a cluster fails, the other can take over its functions by accessing the shared storage drives.

In addition, when you buy a big mainframe, you have to be very careful you will be running high enough volumes of Web traffic to make it a profitable investment, Reynolds says. Down the line, he will consider buying one, because IBM lately has been beefing up the S/390's IP and e-commerce capabilities.

Enter NT

With the steady maturation of the Windows NT platform and its increase in scalability and speed, some companies feel comfortable deploying the operating system in large-scale environments.

Marshfield Clinic, a lab testing company with about 4,000 users in Marshfield, Wis., saved a half-million dollars by replacing its Amdahl mainframe with four IBM 500-MHz Pentium Xeon-based Netfinity four-way servers. There has even been a tenfold increase in server throughput over the mainframe, says Chuck Heiting, an IS manager.

The company now has two clusters of two servers running the company's production applications, which include patient scheduling and lab results processing, while another cluster handles testing. The Netfinity machines are all clustered by Fibre Channel connections.

The move from the mainframe to the PC server platform required making changes to the applications as well as some testing, Heiting says. However, because the software was written in-house, Marshfield was able to do the porting with its own technical staff, saving money.

Moreover, Heiting says, the reduction of maintenance and software licensing fees meant Marshfield was able to recover its investment in the PC servers within 10 months.

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