ServersHardware Today: Unisys Customer Case Study

Hardware Today: Unisys Customer Case Study

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, an example is probably worth at least half that. To that end, we introduce the first of our Customer Case Studies. Going forward, we will follow up each Server Snapshot with a Customer Case Study. These articles will zero-in on an enterprise that has deployed a respective vendor’s hardware throughout its infrastructure. This week’s enterprise, TIES, has been a Unisys customer since its inception, and before that, it was a Burroughs’ customer, for a collective 30 years.

As a follow-up to last week’s Unisys Server Snapshot, we
kick-off our Customer Case Studies with a look at TIES.
TIES is exemplary of a Unisys customer, having deployed
the vendor’s hardware (and that of its predecessors)
throughout its history to build an infrastructure
representative of Unisys’ scale-up strategy at work.

The Unisys Server Snapshot in last week’s Hardware Today presented a company drawing on and continuing to develop scale-up offerings. This week’s Hardware Today complements our overview of Unisys by zooming in on one customer, and demonstrating how it has drawn on the vendor’s longevity and experience in scale-up computing.

When a company has been around for more than a century, it’s bound to have some long-term customers. For Unisys, this includes St. Paul, Minnesota-based TIES, short for Technology and Informational Education Services, a nonprofit consortium founded in 1967. TIES provides IT resources to school administrators, educators, and students in 37 Minnesota school districts. “TIES has been a Burroughs and a Unisys customer for the past 30 plus years,” Helmut Porcher, director of operations and system software, told Hardware Today.

We selected TIES for the Unisys Customer Case Study because it is exemplary of a Unisys customer, having relied on the Unisys’ “scale up” focus throughout its history and made its infrastructure dependent on the vendor’s scale-up experience in both the mainframe and Intel-based modular computing realms.

Porcher said, initially, TIES developed its own application and provided school information services to administrators, educators, students, and parents using the Burroughs mainframe’s Master Control Program (MCP) operating system. TIES kept close to Unisys, and still relies on the vendor’s MCP-based Enterprise Application Environment (EAE) to develop and distribute its custom application for schools.

The TIES Data Center

Until September 2003, all of TIES operations ran on a Unisys Clearpath NX
4800 mainframe, Porcher says. At that time, TIES migrated to the more
modular ES7000 servers, which maintain the highly scalable focus of Unisys’
historical mainframe strength on Intel-based, Windows systems that can
run Unisys’ multi-OS
compatible Enterprise Application Environment (EAE).

TIES’ EAE-based application currently runs via Windows 2000 Data Center on three 32-way Xeon ES 7000 servers, divided into two partitions each. “We have six partitions, all running the Enterprise Application Environment, all running our in-house developed application systems …” says Porcher. Each partition runs three applications: for student management, payroll, and financial accounting. “Think of them as just six stand-alone servers,” he continues, “all running the same application system, but for different customers.”

The decision to partition the 32x servers into 16x partitions wasn’t based on limitations in the ES7000 or in Windows; rather, after discussion with the Unisys Services Group (which, incidentally, is where Unisys currently earns the bulk of its revenue), partitioning seemed like the best way to manage TIES’ EAE-based applications.

Each ES7000 has 48 GB of memory, which is divided evenly for 24 per partition. Each also has its own evenly divided approximately 400 GB Clarion SAN, for storage. Using this hardware, Porcher estimates TIES handles 3,000 concurrent users, each accessing TIES-offered information through thin clients and, increasingly, Web browsers.

With so many end users spanning such a wide variety of needs and access methods, manageability is a must. And manageability seems to have been a motivating reason for the longevity shown by mainframes and scale-up systems, even as scale-out
trends proliferate.

“I could not even imagine running this, doing what we’re doing, on a server farm of 4-ways,” Porcher says, noting that
he would need a staff much larger than his 11 employees to manage such a “scale-out” type operation. Enterprises considering the reduced cost of “scale out” deployments should calculate the cost of the extra hands needed to manage the additional servers from deployment onward. To win over decision makers like Porcher, vendors pushing “scale out” data models will need to further refine management applications and the messaging surrounding such products.

But of course, in reality the distinction between “scale out” and “scale up” is always fuzzier than it appears on paper. In addition to the three main servers for its EAE application, TIES’ operations require servers for print, Web, and other edge functions. They include the Windows-based Unisys ES 3000 servers, which Dell actually manufactures, along with some Linux-based HP and Compaq servers. Small servers have always helped out in scale up environments, even in the more mainframe-oriented past, according to Porcher.

Although TIES currently uses a scale-up environment to run its application for 37 school districts, the organization also sells the application to other districts, which then rent a runtime version of the Unisys EAE for TIES application to run on any number of processors. Porcher notes that the TIES application doesn’t require a scale-up
environment; it will run as-is on 1-way servers, if that suits a customer’s needs. TIES hopes to expand its customer base by further licensing its application, along with Unisys runtime code, to an expanding customer base.

TIES future computing plans? “We’re going to continue to scale up,” says Porcher. “Right now we’re in the initial phases of testing Windows 2003, and the next version of the EAE … and one of the things that we are intent on investigating is actually running the ES7000’s as 32x servers.” He believes this will make for yet-easier manageability.

Ultimately, Porcher would like to see the increasingly complex task of managing information services in today’s world get easier. “One of the big things that we struggle with is really the management of the entire environment, from the end user, from the client
workstation, all the way to the database on the server because now our client base … [is] connecting to us using a myriad of browsers, and multiple OSs, via multiple internet service providers. The whole management of that environment is significantly more complex than, when, once upon a time we really had control of the entire environment: We provided the dial-in lines, we provided the analog lease lines … I’m not expecting this of Unisys or necessarily anyone else. But I hope [this] for the Utopian management software that would help us deal with that environment on a day to day basis.”

No technology will ever be capable of handling every aspect of every job, but throughout its lifetime, Unisys has lived up to its focus of tackling the big parts. Enterprises that today rely on Unisys draw on the vendor’s 120-year-plus history.

Those curious about how Unisys got to where it is today can check out a 117-year time line on the vendor’s Web site. The Unisys of today was formed in 1986, when Sperry and Burroughs merged. Sperry dates back through mergers to the invention of the “first commercially viable typewriter” in 1873. Burroughs was founded based on the invention of the “first commercially viable adding and listing machine” by William Seward Burroughs in 1886. During the subsequent 100-odd years, Unisys and the companies that ultimately merged to form it developed reputations as pioneers in large-scale computing.p>

Although the current-day Unisys does not generate the server sales volume of HP and IBM, for some customers, its decades of scale-up expertise makes the shoe a perfect fit.

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