Server Snapshots: Unisys in the Real World

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Mar 5, 2007

Engineers have a slogan, "if it doesn't fit, get a bigger hammer." For Big Hammer Data, a division of Nashville, Tenn. based Edgenet, the answer was to get a bigger server.

When Big Hammer Data needed a bigger hammer, Unisys' ES7000 proved the right tool for the job.

"One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to implement an enterprise-class solution on Microsoft software is not using enterprise-class servers," says Michael Steineke, Big Hammer's chief systems architect. "That can be the make or break point."

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Although the company uses commodity Dell servers for some applications, its main customer-facing database applications reside on Unisys ES7000 servers.

"This really is the only platform you can run Microsoft on that has this combination of scalability and reliability in a single machine without doing clustering and a lot of failovers," adds Jay Yanko, the company's director of global data synchronization. "To achieve the uptime we required to answer our service level agreements, that was the only choice."

Making the Connection

Big Hammer is in the business of connecting retailers with their suppliers. It offers several services along this line. The basic service is acting as a Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN) data pool. The international supply chain standards organization, GS1, defines the GDSN as "an automated, standards-based, global environment that enables secure and continuous data synchronization, allowing all partners to have consistent data in their systems at the same time."

Companies have used Universal Product Code (UPC) numbers and barcodes on their products for decades. GS1 is replacing UPCs with a new system called Global Trade Identification Numbers (GTIN). GDSN is a way to share information about the products in real time. In Big Hammer's case, suppliers post information on their products that is then accessed by retail firms, including Wal-Mart and The Home Depot. In addition to basic product descriptions, suppliers can post photos, user manuals, product data sheets and other information that the retailers can use for creating catalogs and advertisements. A third service Big Hammer provides is private data areas based on the relationship between a supplier and a retailer, where prices and specific marketing messages can be shared.

Big Hammer is the largest private data pool for the hard goods industry, containing 21 million attributes on 300,000 products from 5,500 manufacturers. The company stores this data and provides it to customers through four ES7000 servers. The first two were ES7000/420 servers, set up two to three years ago. Each box has eight Intel Itanium2 single core processors and 64GB RAM. They both have 4GB Fiber Channel connections dedicated EMC Clariion SANs, one a CX 500 and the other a CX 700.

"One reason we chose this platform is serviceability," says Steineke. "Unisys can service our commodity servers, our ES7000s as well as our EMC SAN. I have one point of contact for all of that, rather than working with multiple service companies. Unisys is a one stop shop."

Big Hammer plans to bring two more ES7000/one servers online this spring. Like the 420s, these have 64GB RAM and 8 processors, but in this case the processors are dual-core Itanium2 Montecito CPUs, so they have 16 cores per server. One of the new servers resides at the company's data center, with the other one at a disaster recovery center in Atlanta. There is full mirroring between the servers at the two sites via a 100 Mbps connection. Like the ES7000/420 servers, the 7000/ones have their own dedicated storage, in this case an EMC Clariion CX 380 storage unit with RAID 10 and 12TB of usable storage. That level, however, will soon grow.

"In three years, we expect to need 280TB of storage at each site," says Yanko.

Each of the ES7000/ones will run three or four instances of Microsoft SQL Server 2005, and each instance will have a number of databases under it. Steineke says that implementation of the fully clustered DR system will take the company about six to eight weeks.

"For performance, we will split a database onto multiple disks on the SAN," he says. "It is not uncommon to have 30 to 40 LUNS on one ES7000. When we are talking about failing over that many LUNS, there is a fair bit of engineering that needs to go into it to make sure that everything is happening the way you want it to."

Planning for Expansion

The company also plans to continue adding new services for its customers, some of which come through acquisition.

"Our enterprise strategy is to build a service box that allows us to plug and play and add new applications or services," says Yanko. Steineke tells of one acquisition that the company made and merged with its product set. The staff from the former company was trying to figure out why it wasn't working properly, when in fact it was working much better on the ES7000s than it had on other servers. "It took five to 10 minutes to compile on anything the software had been loaded on, but with ES7000 it compiled in five seconds," he says. "They spent a day trying to figure out what was wrong."

In addition to adding services, Big Hammer plans to keep adding more customers. This also factored into the decision to buy ES7000s. The 7000/one has 32 processor slots. Big Hammer is using only a quarter of those currently. The memory can go up to 512GB.

"One of the great things about this platform is we can scale up or scale out, whichever we need to do," says Steineke. "Depending on the load, we will either add more 16 core machines, or increase the number of cores in our existing servers. If we are adding more customers, and more SQL instances, we will add more servers, but if it is existing customers adding more data, we will add more processors."

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