Downsizing the server farm

You can have your extra servers, but you had better be ready to manage them yourself. That was the message given to Neil Fortlage, vice-president of information technology with George H. Young, a Winnipeg-based customs brokerage that is applying the lessons learned from a server consolidation project

to its entire IT management strategy.

George H. Young (GHY) recently moved from eight servers down to two, including an IBM eServer i270 with Integrated xSeries Server cards for its brokerage system, financials, report generation, and the more than $2 billion in Canadian shipments to the U.S. it processes each year. An IBM eServer i820, meanwhile, handles file sharing, firewall, e-mail, DNS services and document imaging.

Fortlage says the setup is a far cry from the company’s previous sever infrastructure, which included an AS/400 and seven other servers running a mix of Windows and Linux. An internal analysis showed the mish-mash was making it difficult for GHY’s IT staff to back up data and fully utilize its resources, but the proposed solution — adding nine more Intel-based servers to run Red Hat Linux — would have meant doubling Fortlage’s three-person staff. The human resources department balked at the idea.

“”They said, ‘No way,'”” says Fortlage, adding that server consolidation hadn’t been considered until IBM approached the firm offering to help out with its IT problems. “”We’d heard the message (about server consolidation); it had just never sunk in for some reason.””

Fortlage says he and his staff were spending 90 per cent of their time doing nothing but keeping what they had running. As a result, he says, the company was burdened with insufficient backup and recovery procedures. There were issues not merely around allocating resources to tackle various applications, but fully utilizing some of the resources GHY had. Worst of all, Fortlage says the integration complexity of his infrastructure left him with no time to plan, cultivate his research and development strategies or come up with projects related to the customs business.

The idea to consolidate came following a series of informal meetings with IBM Canada. Fortlage says it was the first time he had been approached by a supplier to help address its infrastructure challenges.

“”When we first got into discussions with GHY, it was just looking at their current legacy system and they had a lease coming due on that legacy. We were first looking at what it would take to upgrade technology,”” says John Norget, an IBM Canada certified information technology specialist. “”After various questions, we got into more of the issues surrounding Linux.””

Norget says customers are looking at server consolidation whenever they find their infrastructure isn’t cohesive or they’ve taken a piecemeal approach to technology. This creates systems issues with managing infrastructure, he says.

“”It’s giving them the ability to respond to new requests,”” he says. “”They were finding a lot of their time was taken up managing versus proactively addressing other needs.””

As an example, Fortlage says GHY was using five different tape drives, four different tape formats, and performing incremental backups because GHY had exceeded capacity. The consolidation project, he says, will give his department the ability to plan for the future. Later this year, for instance, GHY will link the two

iSeries servers together to increase automation of key functions, he says. The company is also currently piloting a document imaging program that allows customers to see details and records on the Web for things such as duty and taxes, and landed costs.

“”We need to start considering operating as a real-time business,”” he says, adding that legislation related to security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 are requiring customs brokerages to provide information as soon as possible. “”If you don’t start working on a solution yourself, the government is going to tell you what to do.””

Fortlage says the project has opened up a world of opportunities in the design of the infrastructure, particularly in areas such as virtualization. The firm has created a virtual LAN for example, where Fortlage has 11 servers running across three NICs, which means one of the servers controls the backup.

“”Now when I’m looking at something, I’m thinking, ‘How can I consolidate what I’m doing even tighter?'”” he says.

Norget says other users are doing the same.

“”It’s definitely created a mindset in our customers,”” he says . “”Now that they see some of the benefits associated with iSeries, they are looking for other areas where they can improve efficiencies.””

The original consolidation project, which required about a month and a half of consultation with IBM, cost approximately $30,000 less than the solution HR opposed, Fortlage says.

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