How Ya Goin' to Keep 'em Down on the Farm?

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - The promise of client/server computing was to make massive, monolithic data centers obsolete. Unfortunately, as companies distributed workgroup servers - and the management of them - across the organization, they uncovered a pent-up need for both computing power and storage capacity far beyond what anyone had envisioned for small to midrange servers to handle. After a dramatic increase in the number of servers and the corresponding management workload, many enterprises are in the process of reclaiming server management as a centrally administered function. Some have even moved the servers to a central location, but most use network-based tools to remotely administer the many servers.

Companies with centrally managed server farms tend their fields of file, database, Web and application processors using very individual, carefully crafted approaches. These approaches combine a diverse set of commercially available tools with a smattering of custom-programmed workflow automation. The software tools are different and the user interfaces are graphical, but the server administrator's management chores are essentially the same as those that a mainframe administrator performs. The key difference is the greater number of machines that the server administrator has to keep running.

Many companies were generally reluctant to talk about their server farm management techniques and tools, fearing that describing the server environment and management procedures would divulge important internal company structures and competitive business strategies. Fortunately, we located a few IT professionals who were willing to share their server management experiences.

The following profiles explore the experiences that four companies have had with multiple-server management. They show that the right mix of tools and procedures is different for different organizations, but that having the right tools and expertise in using those tools is universally important.

As James Governor, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., said: "As IT tries to keep pace with the exponentially increasing need for computing power, companies that stay on top of the management of that computing power will undoubtedly fare better than those that don't."

Origin: A Place to Start

Organization: Origin Technology in Business Inc. (a subsidiary of Philips Electronics NV) in Dallas, the Netherlands and Singaporewww.origin-it.comAssignment: Provide global outsourcing services to enterprisesServers: Many different kinds of Unix and Windows NT serversSoftware: Austin, Texas-based Tivoli Systems Inc.'s Enterprise suite of toolsStaff size: More than 60 employees, located at seven sites worldwideLead: Keith Pelphrey, global director, Enterprise Management SystemsOrigin manages 22 huge server farms for Philips and for hundreds of outsourcing clients with hundreds of thousands of users in 31 countries.

The company's data centers house nearly 60 mainframes and about 3,000 midrange servers. These servers are a mixture of about 1,800 machines, including IBM's AIX and OS/400, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP-UX and Madison, Wisconsin-based DEC International Inc.'s Unix. There are also about 1,200 machines running Windows NT and NetWare. More than 400 of the computers are Lotus Notes servers; many others are file, print and database servers; and the remainder are application-specific processors for enterprise resource planning and other vertical-market systems.

Global Director Keith Pelphrey and laboratory manager Mark Eimer at Origin's Enterprise Management Systems (EMS) branch explain how they've achieved this remarkable level of efficiency and productivity. "We work hard to make sure the computing environment is consistent and up-to-date, and we adhere to stringent standards - that we created for ourselves - for how we run our servers," Pelphrey says.

Eimer says EMS presents challenges that leave his staff busy. According to Pelphrey, businesses that have trouble maintaining a consistent, standard environment are good candidates for becoming outsourcing customers.

Pelphrey adds that Origin prefers to use Tivoli Systems' Enterprise suite to manage multiple servers, although the company doesn't abandon a customers' existing procedures and tools. To a lesser extent, Origin also uses Unicenter TNG from Computer Associates International Inc. in Islandia, New York, and OpenView from HP.

Origin centrally controls the server management software from its mainframe computers, using Origin-written programs. The company also uses IBM's NetView and NetScout Manager Plus to help keep the servers' network connections healthy. For backup and restore functions, Origin uses Tivoli's Storage Manager (formerly ADSM); software from Legato Systems Inc. in Palo Alto, California; ArcServe from Seagate Technology Inc. in Scotts Valley, California; and OmniBack from HP.

Both Pelphrey and Eimer say they empathize with other server farm managers.

"People underestimate the complexity of EMS products," Eimer says. "To make an EMS tool do what you want, you need to invest significantly in the training of the people who will live with the tools."

Let Your Servers Do the Walking

Organization: Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages Inc. in Bostonwww.bigyellow.comAssignment: Publish Yellow Pages directories, in print and on the WebServers: Compaq Computer Corp. servers running Windows NT, plus IBM, HP and Sun Microsystems servers running UnixSoftware: Compaq Insite Manager; Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server (SMS); Tivoli Expert Advisor; Adkins Resource Inc.'s Hyena; Wise Solutions Inc.'s Wise installer; and Seagate Software ArcServe 6.6Staff Size: FiveLead: John Farrer, Windows NT Server managerBell Atlantic Corp.'s Yellow Pages subsidiary manages close to 200 servers, scattered from Maine to West Virginia in 50 divisional offices and six data centers. Most of the machines are Compaq Proliant servers running Windows NT, but about 20 run AIX, Solaris and HP-UX. There's also an MVS mainframe in the mix. The servers support about 5,000 end users, all in a single Windows NT domain regulated by one Primary Domain Controller. Microsoft's RAS runs on two servers to provide 150 ports of dial-in connectivity.

The publishing company's mainstay applications are Microsoft Word and Excel productivity tools; Microsoft BackOffice database and connectivity tools; Notes for e-mail; software from PeopleSoft Inc. in Pleasanton, California; QuarkXPress from Quark Inc. in Denver, for page layout; and a custom-written system for processing Yellow Pages advertising orders.

John Farrer says his organization carefully evaluated dozens of applications to come up with the best combination for his team. The group's criteria for server management tools included sophisticated functionality, support for the company's predominant platforms, ease of use and an intuitive interface.

Farrer says he relies on Microsoft SMS for systems management and software distribution. Expert Advisor from Tivoli automates the help desk, while Hyena, from La Vernia, Texas-based Adkins Resource, maintains user identifications, home directories and standard resource-sharing configurations for users.

Canton, Michigan-based Wise Solutions Inc.'s Wise installation tool helps Farrer build new Windows NT Server machines that are correctly configured, and Seagate's ArcServe does the backup and restore data protection chores.

Farrer says he firmly believes in staying ahead of hardware failures. For example, each Intel-based server has two RAID disk controllers capable of failing over to the redundant network adapters and power supplies.

Farrer advises other server farm managers to "spend the extra money up front to get fault-resistant, redundant hardware. Buy the best equipment possible.

You'll save money over the long term, because the cost of server downtime - such as an unavailable production system - is high. You'll also get longer life cycles with better hardware."

A Sporting Proposition

Organization: The Forzani Group Ltd. in Calgary, Albertawww.forzanigroup.comAssignment: Support the largest retailer of sporting goods in CanadaServers: Data General Corp.'s DG-UX, with Windows-based clientsSoftware: HP OpenView; 3Com Corp.'s Transcend; and Intel Corp.'s LanDeskStaff size: ThreeLead: Michael Flood, IT directorThe Forzani Group is Canada's largest sporting goods retailer, with about 300 stores nationwide. The company is growing rapidly and expects to soon have hundreds of geographically dispersed DG-UX servers from Westboro, Massachusetts-based Data General. About 800 users will access the machines, which will be managed from the company's main office.

The company's principal applications are a sophisticated sales system, a sales data-tracking and trend-analysis system and a business-to-business electronic data interchange system.

Three Forzani Group employees will manage the servers. However, the company says that number could change if some responsibilities are shifted between the help desk and network management teams.

Michael Flood, who's orchestrating the server growth plan, describes it as an offensive strategy to deal with his expanding server farm. He says his goal is to smoothly integrate appropriate new technologies as his group rolls out the servers and management tools.

Flood has identified obstacles he'll need to overcome, such as Canada's geography, time zones and multiple native languages, as well as stores' different operating procedures and server upgrade paths. He says he also wants each store to be as fault-tolerant as possible, insulated from server and network failures.

He's selected OpenView from HP, Transcend from 3Com in Santa Clara, California, and LANDesk from Intel as his primary tools. He says he looked briefly at Tivoli's software but found it pricey and unable to handle NetWare-to-Unix migrations. Legato software carries out the backup and restore work.

Flood says his encounters with software vendors have given him a healthy skepticism of salespeople's claims. "Don't believe vendors when they tell you they can automate all management tasks for all servers," he says.

A Little Insurance, a Lot of Support

Organization: Financial Administrative Services Inc. (a subsidiary of Policy Management Systems Corp.) in Wethersfield, Connecticut.www.pmsc.comAssignment: Administer life insurance products on behalf of major insurance companiesServers: IBM AIX servers with NetWare and Windows NT; clone machines from Compaq, Dell Computer Corp. and NEC Corp.

Software: Novell Inc.'s NWAdmin; Microsoft User Manager for Domains; Syncsort Inc.'s Backup Express; and Novell's ZENWorksStaff size: SixLead: Scott Wiggin, network managerFinancial Administrative Services is a third-party administrator. The company subcontracts to life insurance companies that want to outsource the customer data maintenance and service functions associated with a particular kind of insurance, such as variable annuity.

The company has only a few dozen servers, accessed by about 700 users. However, there is a strain on the server management team because of the diversity of application environments that Financial Administrative Services has to support as it assumes the identities and workloads of several insurance companies.

On behalf of those companies, Financial Administrative Services runs NetWare; Windows NT; WinFrame, from Citrix Systems Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; AIX; and Linux from Red Hat Inc. in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The Linux machines act as file transfer protocol servers, while the NT, WinFrame and AIX servers store customer insurance data and process transactions.

Scott Wiggin says his biggest problem was finding tape backup software that would work with all the company's operating platforms. He decided on Backup Express but then had to get the vendor, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Syncsort, to fix bugs in the product.

Wiggin says he isn't concerned that it takes six people to manage the servers, because much of their time is spent responding to requests to move data between operating environments - a task he hasn't found a way to completely automate.

Wiggin's group uses NWAdmin to administer a NetWare Novell Directory Services (NDS) tree, and Windows NT User Manager for Domains to administer Financial Administrator's two domains. He says he looked at Novell's NDS for NT products and concluded that it isn't capable enough for his group's purposes. Novell's ZENWorks distributes computer programs and data files.

Like Origin's Pelphrey and Eimer, Wiggins says cross-training is essential for keeping servers up and running.

Nance, a software developer and consultant for 29 years, is the author of Introduction to Networking, 4th Edition (Que, 1997) and Client/Server LAN Programming (Que, 1994). Contact him at barryn@erols.com.

Server Managers vs. Data Center AdministratorsData center administrators and server farm managers perform similar tasks, but there are important differences.

The server manager has to maintain more computers, propagate changes across more machines and deal with multiple operating systems. A data center administrator typically has documented corporate standards for updates, while the server manager's change procedures are often less formal.

A mainframe operating system, such as IBM's MVS, is more sophisticated and mature than the operating systems found on small to midrange servers (although, ironically, Windows NT consumes more memory than MVS). For instance, MVS detects and discards runaway applications and gracefully handles hardware failures and disk-space exhaustion.

A server farm manager's job description may look like his data center counterpart's, but don't be misled. The server farm manager has the tougher job.

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