By Peggy King
Unix client/server customers and their key vendors show a new openness toward collaboration.
Many organizations in the process of implementing distributed open systems have laid out the welcome mat to key IT suppliers. It seems as if the pioneering spirit of the do-it-yourselfers who implemented the first generation of commercial Unix systems is giving way to practical solutions in which customers are willing to pay for assistance from both hardware and software vendors. However, the eagerness of IS managers to work in partnership with vendors doesn't mean they are willing to be locked in by proprietary operating systems and standards.
This situation is evolving with the Unix server market, among others. Now that processing power and storage are available at commodity prices, buyers can focus on aspects of the IT solution closer to their business needs.
An emerging trend reflecting this change of server strategies is what Gartner Group calls the application-specific server platform (ASSP). As opposed to a general-purpose business server, Gartner defines the ASSP as "a server that has a sufficiently unique functionality to benefit a narrow subset of the company rather than the whole, whether inside or outside the IS organization." (For more on the ASSP, see The Analyst's Couch)
Speaking to IS managers at four organizations who are implementing distributed client/server systems on Unix platforms revealed how fully some customers are moving away from merely looking for the hottest box. The upshot is that users are willing to link their organizations with single vendors for specific, perhaps large-scale, projects.
These users spoke of common needs, despite being from diverse industries. All relied on vendor resources for implementation assistance and more. Like their counterparts who were operating mainframe data centers, these managers were looking for reliability, availability and support (RAS) from their vendors.
George Weiss, lead analyst of the distributed computing platform service of Gartner Group in Stamford, CT, uses a pendulum analogy to describe the swing between customer expectations for the high integration offered by proprietary systems and the low cost and flexibility of open systems. He cautions that users can be hurt whichever way the pendulum swings. "Neither the proprietary systems environment, that locks in customers, nor the democratic open systems, where not all the parts fit together, provides an optimal computing environment. IS managers need to be cautious about both extremes, because it's easy to get knocked out either way the pendulum swings," he says.
Not only the locked-in customers with centralized systems and proprietary operating systems contract for high levels of integration from the vendors these days. So do open systems users. Whether the server in question is a redundant, massively parallel database server accessible to thousands of reservations agents or an Intel Pentium-based uniprocessor running one grocery store, customer requirements are similar.
* None of these customers mentioned processor speed or even price/performance as their principal reason for choosing one vendor over another. Today, service and support are more important than raw performance in choosing a hardware supplier.
* IS managers are aware that consultants capable of planning and implementing the migration of mission-critical applications to open systems are a scarce resource. Instead of greeting high-level vendor consultants who come to provide implementation assistance with a wary cost-consciousness, many IS organizations have decided that the cost of retaining a vendor's professional services teams is less expensive and more effective than the alternative of doing it themselves. Often the only other way to obtain this assistance would be to conduct a lengthy search for employees with the appropriate skills and then have to worry how to retain them after the excitement of the initial implementation subsides.
* IS organizations are evaluating their software investments more in terms of business feasibility than of technical excellence. Instead of searching for best-of-breed software for each application, they want to pare down the number of independent software vendors (ISVs) they deal with and avoid those that are too small to partner effectively with the major hardware vendors. In short, they are looking for the ISVs that have the most clout.
* Many IS professionals in organizations that have implemented enterprise-wide open systems have gained their experience by being among the first in their industries to plan and implement a move off the mainframe. Most would prefer not to have "arrows in their back" a second time. This time around, they want to partner with a vendor who has helped another organization implement a similar system, rather than serving as a vendor's beta site or help the vendor train its consultants.
The following case studies highlight the recent experiences of organizations who worked closely with their server vendors as they moved to a new open systems architecture.
Leverage ISV Partnerships
With headquarters in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, TransAlta Utilities Corp. employs about 2,200 people, but fewer than half of them work in Calgary. The utility has about 550 users at 70 remote sites throughout the province and about 600 desktop users at the three large coal-powered generators it operates 300 kilometers from Calgary in the coal-producing region around Lake Wabomum.
In December 1994 TransAlta decided that it was time to migrate from its legacy environment of centralized DEC VAX clusters with VT terminals to a more integrated architecture. TransAlta's first decision was to implement the R/3 suite from SAP America of Philadelphia on an Oracle database server. According to Mik Kimura, technology infrastructure manager, TransAlta's IS department chose SAP strategically. "We weren't choosing individual applications. We were deciding to go with an industry leader, because SAP offers so many applications and so much integration," he says. Kimura did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past and end up with "stovepipe" applications that could not be integrated and share data or to have a collection of specialized servers without interoperability.
Building on its existing relationship with Digital Equipment Corp., TransAlta migrated from the VAX systems to Alpha servers running Digital Unix for the back-end and middle-tier servers of its three-tier architecture. There are five servers altogether, including an AlphaServer 2100 that TransAlta uses for development. The other four each have a role in the SAP implementation and are connected with two concentrators on their own fiber distributed data interface (FDDI) ring. The largest of these, an AlphaServer 8400, holds the Oracle SAP database (sized at about 70GB in September 1996 and expected to grow quickly to over 100GB). TransAlta's electronic data exchange (EDI) is also integrated with SAP on the 8400 server. The AlphaServer 8200 is a backup server for the main database and is connected to the main server with DecSafe fail-over software. Unless the main database server is down, the fail-over server acts as an application server for TransAlta's human resources and plant management applications. Modules of the R3 system reside on 2100 servers in the middle tier.
"In replacing our legacy system, we were seeking the best possible integration rather than trying to obtain the best-of-breed package for each application," says Kimura. "In choosing a hardware vendor, we weren't looking at raw performance but rather at that vendor's prospects of working in partnership with the leading software vendors. This time around, we wanted to pick the market leaders so that we could leverage the partnerships that they were pursuing."
The recent alliance between SAP and Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, AL, is an example of one such partnership. Like many other utility companies, TransAlta uses Intergraph workstations for storing and displaying its mapping data. Based on a demo these two vendors gave at TransAlta, Kimura and his staff expect that any updates to the materials and plant maintenance modules of R/3, for example, would be reflected in the Intergraph drawings.
Traditionally TransAlta has relied on Digital for most of its professional service needs. Despite the migration, Digital continues to supply all TransAlta's support and maintenance. Digital did not have the resources, however, to do the SAP implementation, so IBM Professional Services won that bid.
Some portions of TransAlta's strategic plan cannot be implemented until the vendors deliver products. TransAlta is waiting for SAP to release a version of R/3 optimized for Oracle's Parallel Server, so it can replicate its SAP database and run a backup version on a remote server as a further measure for disaster preparedness. TransAlta's payroll and customer information systems still run in the legacy environment while the company waits for these SAP modules to be available (the Canadian payroll module trails the U.S. version).
Target High Availability
The Westin Technology Center in Salt Lake City opened in March 1996 and now has a staff of 60 professionals who work on a project basis to support Westin Hotels and Resorts, a hotel chain with 93 properties in the U.S. and 60 more worldwide. This is a big change from the chain's previous IT commitment. "We had a 1985-level computer infrastructure at the time we were acquired in May 1995. Suddenly we had access to capital and a need to make strategic technology investments to prepare for an initial public offering in 1997," says David Moon, Westin Technology Center's chief technology officer.
Westin was owned from 1986 until May 1995 by a privately held commercial real-estate company, which made little investment in IT during those years. The computing environment included an IBM ES/9000 mainframe in Seattle and midrange IBM AS/400s at other sites. New ownership wanted to start from scratch in a separate location.
The first investment decision was to choose software and a platform for a reservations system capable of supporting a call center of 200 reservations agents in Omaha, NE, as well as smaller call centers for Europe and Asia. In addition, the system had to provide direct access to reservations information for 28,000 travel agents and support access to realtime reservations booking via the Internet, a feature that Westin plans to add to its Web site by the end of this year.
Westin issued a request for proposal for new reservations system software in October 1995. Eventually, it chose the Micros system from Fidelio Gmbh of Munich, Germany, and plans to implement this system with the Oracle Parallel Server (OPS) as its underlying database. In January 1996, Westin began its hardware selection process by considering half a dozen platforms on which Micros could run. In the end Westin selected the Unix-based Integrity Networked Resource (Integrity/NR) server line from Tandem of Cupertino, CA. "The quotes we got from the six different vendors ranged almost sixfold," says Moon. "Our big concern was performance. We needed a symmetric multiprocessing architecture for running OPS. We chose Tandem because high-end online transaction processing [OLTP] was a strength of theirs."
Westin Technology Center operates independently on a profit-and-loss basis, bidding competitively for projects within Westin Hotels. Moon therefore pays careful attention to per-transaction costs and scalability; the center had to buy exactly the size of server it needed. "Tandem was willing to work with us to provide a high-availability configuration without our having to pay top dollar for a completely redundant backup system," he explains.
Tandem is helping Westin install two similarly configured Integrity/NR servers that will operate on an FDDI ring. The reservations system server will run Fidelio on OPS, and another server will run decision support and yield management applications with a decision support database. Each of these servers has mirrored RAID disks from the other server. If the reservations system goes down, the OLTP reservations system fails over to the decision support server. The FDDI ring also links an IBM RS/6000 running financial applications from Lawson Software of Minneapolis, a separate Tandem server for system testing and another server for application development.
In choosing Tandem as its principal server vendor, Westin considered its research and development capabilities as well as its vendor alliances. Like TransAlta, Westin wanted its vendor to be working in partnership with Oracle to support fault-tolerant massively parallel processing. Moon and his staff also questioned Tandem about its plans to comply with the Object Management Group's Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) specification, because Westin wants to use distributed objects for application development. They were also concerned that Tandem support Java-based clients, because Moon believes that Java-based Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) clients will become a new application development standard for reservations in the hospitality industry.
Build to Specifications
Weiss of Gartner Group points to application integration and platform customization as the two most essential elements that differentiate ASSPs from generic servers. The servers that the Whole Foods Stores grocery chain uses in each of its more than 80 stores meet both of these criteria. Whole Foods' IS department in Austin has worked with Osiris International, a systems integrator also based in Austin, to specify exactly what components it wants filling the slots in its Intel Pentium-based servers. Its integrated store applications come from retail industry software supplier Bass, Inc., of Dayton, OH, and run on SCO Unix. Each store has a suite of applications including time cards and bar code label scanning, and some have an electronic payment system at the checkout counters.
Before selecting Osiris International as its server supplier three years ago, Whole Foods had used servers from various other vendors, but the company wanted more reliable systems and better response time for replacing parts that fail than it expected to get from a mass-market PC vendor. "We can't afford to have a store down for a day or more while we send a box away to be repaired, and we know exactly which component suppliers we can depend on for the most reliable parts," says Marc Chance, systems administrator. He has identified a preferred supplier for every slot in the in-store PC servers: 3Com of Santa Clara, CA, provides the networking cards; the I/O boards come from Digi International of Eden Prairie, MN; Adaptec of Milpitas, CA, supplies the SCSI cards; and the PCI video display cards are from Number Nine Visual Technology of Lexington, MA.
"We let Whole Foods specify down to the smallest detail what they want to have in their servers, and then we build it to our own standards," says Alec Tahmassebi, general partner of Osiris International. "We have access to warehouses all over the United States. When a store needs a part, we drop-ship it from the closest place."
As Whole Foods acquires new stores, it installs its own store systems as quickly as possible, relying on Osiris to expedite the process. "When we get a request for a new server, Whole Foods specifies what speed Pentium processor and what size chassis they need for the new store. We promise delivery within five business days. Two of those days are devoted to extensive system testing," says Tahmassebi.
After having Whole Foods as a customer for three years, Osiris financed some custom research and development to help it solve a business problem. Whole Foods has two SCO Unix servers (one running Bass applications and another one running accounting and timekeeping applications) in some of its stores, but it prefers to run all applications on one server for ease of maintenance whenever possible. Osiris recently built a demo system of a dual-Pentium server configured to Whole Foods' specifications.
Find the Right Consultants
Not all vendors who have Unix servers in their product line can supply the professional services required to deliver a distributed client/server implementation on a large scale, especially when the customer does not have its own IS organization. The Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, based in the State House in Boston, learned the hard way that vendors should supply more than hardware.
To comply with federal "motor voter" regulations, which mandate that citizens should be able to register to vote at the same place that they register motor vehicles, Massachusetts had to install its first computer link between state government and 351 municipalities. These municipalities range in size from the cities of Boston, Springfield and Worcester, which have their own data centers, to smaller communities staffed only by town clerks. Some of these clerks were elected and others were appointed, but many of them had never used a computer before. "Getting the town clerks to buy into the idea of being linked to the state was a difficult sales job. Many of them had been handling elections in their own way for years and saw no need to standardize on a state level," says Jack McCarthy, chief of staff for Commonwealth of Massachusetts Secretary James F. Galvin's office.
The previous vendor, who was selected because of involvement with earlier IT projects in the state, determined that the application should be based on an Oracle database running on the vendor's Intel-based Unix servers, with client applications written in PowerBuilder from Sybase. From September 1994 to March 1996, the vendor attempted to deliver these applications for a distributed system that had to support up to 750 end users. The project did not go well. "These consultants were mainframers trying to become client/server specialists. They did not have the expertise we needed," McCarthy recalls.
From this false start, the state secretary's office learned the importance of having a reference implementation. As part of the process of choosing a new vendor, McCarthy's staff brought in outside consultants who were told to find a reference implementation that was as complex as the Massachusetts system would be. The consultants corresponded with people who had implemented a new election system in Australia on Sequent servers. "It was important to us to know that Sequent had implemented a another large project with similar software and comparable scope," says McCarthy.
Sequent took over the project and brought in consultants who had the expertise required for deploying the PowerBuilder applications to all of the municipalities. The application now runs on an Intel-based Sequent S5000/SE70 symmetric multiprocessing server similar to the one the former vendor had brought in. The larger municipalities connect to Boston via frame relay, and the 100 smallest have access via dial-up modem. As this article went to press, Sequent Professional Services was continuing to optimize the application for its first stress test: the Massachusetts presidential primary on Sept. 17.
The term hardware vendor has come to be a misnomer. None of the IS managers interviewed for this article selected a server merely on the basis of processor, disk capacity or even networking bandwidth. Although some of them buy servers one box at a time, none wants to furnish either their data centers or their distributed sites with one-of-a-kind acquisitions.
Now that "commercial Unix" has become mainstream business processing, IS managers for organizations deploying open systems are thinking in functional terms not so different from those of their mainframe counterparts. Gone are the days when technical evaluations were the decisive factors an IS organization considered when selecting an open systems platform.
If the problems that occur when implementing a new information architecture are merely technical, why do IS professionals call upon a vendor to do what they can do themselves? Because their time and attention are directed elsewhere. Mik Kimura of TransAlta is thinking of an incentive plan to retain the SAP developers on his staff. David Moon is figuring out how to make his consultants' services more cost-effective to Westin than outsourcing would be. Marc Chance is making sure each newly acquired Whole Foods store can scan groceries and track time cards. Jack McCarthy is planning ways to get all the Massachusetts town clerks trained on the new registration system before the next election. In these business-driven solutions, IT is taking its proper place--as a support system. And the suppliers of it are doing likewise.
Peggy King is a free-lance writer based in San Jose, CA, who specializes in the business aspects of open systems. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.