AltaGas powers its way through IT growth project

AltaGas‘s business was growing faster than its IT infrastructure. The natural gas company was looking for a scalable environment that would continue to grow as the company grew – and as it expanded from 16 to 45 servers.

Previously the Calgary-based company had a hodge-podge of technology, including PC and server clones. Several years ago, it decided to replace the clones, and tried to get the attention of Sun, IBM and HP, which was difficult as a small Western Canadian company, said Dave Favreau, IT manager of operations with AltaGas. Dell’s “in your face” approach won the business, and over the years AltaGas has become an entirely Dell shop.

But as the company continued to grow, network file access was slow and backups took more than 21 hours. With limited database growth, it had no capacity for new applications.

“We knew we couldn’t carry on that way,” said Favreau. “It was starting to interrupt business cycles.” In November, the company increased storage capacity from 1TB to 5TB, rolled out new backup technology, replaced 10 servers with Windows 2003, upgraded to Exchange 2003 and relocated all servers within the data centre.

AltaGas now has what Dell dubs a “scale-out” infrastructure, so it can grow as the company grows. “We didn’t want to do any more forklift upgrades,” said Favreau. “We learned our lesson.”

While he made a point to review competitive bids from IBM and HP, Favreau said he saw no compelling reason to change vendors mid-stream. “Servers are a commodity – it’s really the relationship with the solution provider,” he said.

While Dell has traditionally been associated with the consumer space, it’s trying to change that perception and get people to think of enterprise solutions when they think of Dell.

This is occurring at a time when virtualization continues to consolidate servers. Dell’s advantage, said Paul Gottsegen, vice-president of worldwide enterprise marketing with the Dell Product Group in Round Rock, Tex., is that it doesn’t have a legacy platform. “If they’re running Oracle, we have 50 tested Oracle solution stacks,” he said. Dell also integrates with system management software from a number of vendors, including Microsoft, he added.

Dell’s scale-out enterprise strategy is trying to address three major business challenges, he said, including the need to simplify operations through fewer management tools and easier SAN implementations. Others include improving utilization through clustering, virtualized resources and tiered storage, as well as cost-effective scaling through a modular, pay-as-you-go approach.

But Dell is still fighting the perception that it’s a consumer player. This is despite the fact that 80 per cent of Dell’s worldwide revenues come from the corporate side, said Debora Jensen, vice-president of the advanced systems group with Dell Canada Inc. in Toronto.

Back when Dell’s direct model was making headlines, other vendors, like HP and Compaq, tried to emulate that model. “It almost destroyed their businesses,” said Alan Freedman, research manager of infrastructure hardware with IDC Canada in Toronto. Today, those vendors have focused on services, which they see as a challenge for Dell because it doesn’t have the same level of services infrastructure in place. Dell, for its part, says simplicity is key to winning business. Emphasizing its partnerships with companies like EDS, CGI and Telus could be a way for Dell to change that perception, said Freedman.

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