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Hardware Today: Low Budget, Big Needs

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jul 31, 2006


Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis doesn't have a large IT budget or a surplus of resources, yet it has dozens of sites, hundreds of PCs, and millions of public to service. To accomplish its mission, it operates a data center, a massive relational database management system (RDBMS), a variety of charity-related applications, a storage area network (SAN), a replication site, and a real-time collaboration environment.

With an annual budget of $600,000, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis services dozens of Web sites, hundreds of PCs, and millions of people. A server room with seven IBM System i and System x servers makes this possible.

"While some companies are lean and mean, we are ridiculous," says Jim Storms, director of IT at Catholic Charities. "Our annual budget is under $600,000 and we have had to expand IT functions in the face of steady funding cutbacks."

The organization achieves this by building on a foundation of IBM System i servers. A total of five System i Servers (formerly known as iSeries) and two System x servers (formerly xSeries) support its entire data center operations.

"System i is one of the most reliable, well-supported and value-priced servers in the marketplace," says Storms.

One Million Meals

Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis has its headquarters in Minneapolis with sites around the Twin Cities area in 12 surrounding counties. Its 700 employees provide a range of social services, specializing in helping men, women, and children in crisis. In 2005, for example, Catholic Charities served 1.1 million meals to the hungry, and its 14 housing programs made more than 1,000 beds available to the homeless every night.

On the IT side, Storms oversees: two PC/LAN technicians who take care of multiple LANs, connectivity to the WAN, System x servers and PC maintenance; a WAN supervisor, who also administers the System i server; and a database programmer/analyst. This small team looks after a total of 40 sites.

The central data center runs an integrated System i/System x SAN. Two IBM System i 520 servers host the main applications as well as all the data. These are Unix-based systems that host the main database and backup software, and run two instances of Lotus Notes Domino and Lotus QuickPlace — the latter for collaboration.

A high-speed loop from the System i core connects to two IBM System x servers (models 250 and 255). They are both Intel-based servers running Windows.

Two additional System i servers operate at large remote sites: One is a model 270 and the other an 820. A final System i server runs in a DMZ internet. This last machine also hosts Lotus QuickPlace, synching with the QuickPlace system running at headquarters.

"As well as our own staff, we also use Lotus QuickPlace so that non-staff can collaborate with us in a secure environment," says Storms.

Technically speaking, the System i server in the DMZ is actually an old IBM eServer AS/400 originally designed for Lotus. When the newer System i servers were procured, Storms planned to throw it away, as its function as an e-mail server to host Lotus Notes has ended. Instead, he found a new use for it, and, like its cousins, it runs the i5 operating system.

Down-System-i-zing

Storms says IBM has traditionally offered two System i tiers — higher-end models with a price to match and more affordable lower-end systems with less power or fewer features. The demands of Catholic Charities' network used to require bigger models, such as the 820. However, it now gets by successfully with the lower-scale boxes.

"Greater processing power within the System i 520 server has led to a reduction in our licensing costs," says Storms. "By using 520's instead of 820's, we have saved about $30,000 over the past three years."

Such moves have become the norm for an IT department that sees its burden rising as purse strings tighten. During the past six years, for example, there has been 150 percent growth in the number of devices to support. The same small crew must now support Palm Pilots, laptops, SAN switches, and other equipment. And the application portfolio has risen proportionately.

"We have gotten used to doing more with less," says Storms. "Yet we have maintained a high level of reliability."

The capacity to steadily upgrade services despite cutbacks has been assisted, says, Storms, by a strong long-term relationship with Big Blue. This includes IBM employees offering volunteer hours on software development, non-profit discounts, and PC and laptop donations.

For example, IBM helped Catholic Charities develop card technology to assist thousands of homeless reclaim their identity. Known as the Community Card program, it helps emergency workers and family members identify and provide treatment for the area's homeless. This initiative uses a Lotus Notes database in conjunction with Minnetonka, Minn.-based DataCard's software, ID Works. It runs on the main System i server at headquarters.

"Lotus Notes made it easy to develop the card system," reports Storms. "As the System i can run multiple environments of Lotus, I didn't need to buy more licenses for the Community Card program."

It hooked up with IBM partners in the Twin Cities area to further trim expenditures. In particular, the IS organization worked closely with three IBM partners to achieve its goals despite the lack of available funds: a System i specialist known as Technology Solutions Group (TSG) of Minneapolis; CompuTech Resources of Saint Louis Park, Minn, an experienced Lotus shop; and Insight Enterprises, a value-added reseller in St. Paul.

PC replacement was one area that benefited from this outsourcing. Every year, the nonprofit replaces 70 to 100 PCs out of its 500-PC total. Two technicians used to struggle with this additional burden, taking up to six months to get all of the new machines up and running due to a heavy existing workload. By outsourcing this function to Insight, the rollout takes far less time and doesn't require the IS organization's involvement.

"Annual PC refreshment is down from six months to six weeks," says Storms. "Insight pre-images them and, sends technician onsite, moves user files, and gets the new system functioning well. All of that cost is rolled into the cost of one PC."

Upgrade Plans

Later this year, the organization intends to ditch its aging System x boxes in favor of newer System x models. The two remotely located System i servers are going to be consolidated into the main data center One of these servers will be eliminated altogether and workloads will be distributed to other servers at the home office.

"Even though the System i doesn't need a lot of maintenance, it is a lot easier to consolidate, and this eliminates time spent traveling to remote sites," says Storms. "By doing away with one server I also reduce costs for maintenance and license support."

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