Unix servers: Mainframe redux

In computing, the pendulum has swung between the poles of centralized mainframe environments and distributed client/server computing. Right now, it is swinging back toward a centralized environment.Urged on by cost-of-ownership and personnel issues, some agencies, such as the Defense Information Systems Agency, are moving their Unix servers into a shared environment to reap the benefits of reduced administration costs.

Some agencies are going even further, moving applications from small Unix servers to larger ones."You can consolidate Unix servers in several ways," said Bill Dwyer, chief technologist of the government business unit of Hewlett-Packard Co., Cupertino, Calif. "But...it comes down to people saying, 'I have all these boxes. They are too much trouble to manage and take up too much space. I'd like to get rid of them.' "

Such actions are not without cost, though. Bandwidth and support considerations - difficult enough to cope with in a local environment - can balloon into full-fledged disasters after consolidation. And agencies that rush into server consolidation without sufficient planning will find the only benefits are accrued by the suppliers.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Tony Celeste, civilian agencies branch manager for server vendor Silicon Graphics Inc., said the move to consolidate servers is the result of too much decentralization over the past few years. Celeste said support costs have skyrocketed, and systems management has become too complicated.

David Hornby, director of server consolidation practices for Sun Professional Services at Sun Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., blamed the "one application, one server" school of thought for the problems that administrators now face.

"Every time someone gets a new application, they get a server for development and testing, one for training and one for disaster recovery," Hornby said. "Each application means three or four new servers."Vendors are eagerly providing the big servers needed for consolidation. HP's V-Series, Sun's Ultra Enterprise and SGI's Origin line of servers can run 64 or more processors.

According to a DISA spokeswoman, the Defense Department is reducing its number of data centers from 16 to four simply by moving hardware and software to its new mega data centers. "We didn't get rid of smaller servers and replace them with larger ones," she said.

NASA also is physically consolidating its computing efforts. Jim Taft, a consultant with NASA's Ames Research Center, said NASA applications such as those for chemistry and molecular modeling are "very apropos for clusters" because they require little communication between processors.

But Scott Winkler, vice president of research firm Gartner Group, said physical consolidation is not always the right approach. "We recommend consolidating by application rather than by location," Winkler said. "You have a better chance of it succeeding."

The Defense Commissary Agency this month began consolidating servers in a proj-ect that will be completed in September.

"We are replacing Honeywell-Bull minicomputers," said Dan Marcum, chief of Deca's Business Systems Division. "They are extremely reliable; they've worked even where the power has been accidentally cut. But we need Y2K compliance."

Deca actually is increasing its number of servers, replacing 24 servers with 40 Intel Corp. Pentium machines running The Santa Cruz Operation Inc.'s Unix system. "But that's because we are going to 100 percent server failover, something we can't do today," Marcum said.

There will be no middle tier for Deca: Workstations and printers will be networked directly to the servers. Because of this, the servers have to be centrally located.

The agency also took personnel issues into account. "It's difficult to have expertise in the field in the numbers required," Marcum said. "We put them in central processing centers."

Vernecia Lee, growth initiative brand manager for IBM Corp. in Bethesda, Md., called the physical consolidation of servers "the easiest part" of the process - but one that produces benefits on its own.The U.S. Geological Survey is launching a pilot effort with IBM to cut its number of mail servers from 150 to fewer than half a dozen. The agency's mail server proj-ect is badly needed, according to IBM. "They have 11,000 employees with 150 mail servers and 50 people spending all or part of their time managing them," Lee said.

The pilot, which began in April, started with 200 geographically dispersed users and will last for 60 days.

A second project with IBM will consolidate data, creating a centralized storage server facility.

The Payoff

It's pretty easy to tell when an organization needs to consolidate its servers, HP's Dwyer said. "One of the first problems is that they can't find their systems," he said. "Seriously. They don't know how many they have."

Lee said she has seen the same thing happen. "You can walk into an organization that is so departmentalized, territorial, so isolated that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," she said. "That's when you can see where some changes can be made."

Aside from the obvious benefits of uniting an organization's management efforts, consolidation also may cut personnel costs. With information technology staff turnover increasing and labor representing as much as 70 percent of the cost of a distributed environment, it makes sense to use personnel as efficiently as possible.

Steve Sundman, manager of SCO's government area, said server consolidation could allow an agency to go from three organizations with their own local-area network administrative staffs to having one staff with a third of the personnel serving the organizations.

IT personnel are in such demand that most vendors pooh-pooh the thought that consolidation could cost anyone a job. But one agency spokesman admitted that it is sometimes hard to get cooperation from staff members who are afraid they will be phased out by consolidation.

Yet another benefit of consolidating data centers around Unix is the ability to obtain higher levels of reliability and availability.

"Think of it this way," said Joyce Becknell, director of Unix and enterprise systems for research house Aberdeen Group. "We all know how hard it is to keep an eye on one kid. But if I put all the kids in school and have them all doing the same thing, it's easy to watch them. And with all the servers in the same room, management strategies are easier."

The high-end servers also let you justify the cost of gear that would not be appropriate with smaller servers. For example, Redundant Array of Independent Disks storage is not cost-effective on a $3,000 server, but it is standard with high-end Unix boxes. This leads to improved availability and disaster-recovery capabilities, Gartner's Winkler said.

Not So Fast

Server consolidation does have its pitfalls. Because agencies may be attracted by the hype surrounding consolidation, they may not plan effectively and may try to force consolidation where it is not appropriate."People try to consolidate workloads on systems that don't consolidate well or spend tons of money on the transition that outweigh their savings," Winkler said.

Winkler said lack of bandwidth can be a hurdle for many organizations. If bandwidth issues are of concern on the LAN level, hooking more clients to one server makes the matter even worse. He said Gartner recommends against consolidating when it is clear that an organization lacks adequate bandwidth.

"Bandwidth is always a problem," Deca's Marcum said. "It's part of a trade-off you have to make for consolidation."

Furthermore, some Unix capabilities simply are not scalable enough for very high levels of information processing, SCO's Sundman acknowledged. Control of input/output is a difficult issue with large multiprocessor systems.

And when consolidation does takes place, workgroups within an agency can become even more territorial about data and applications.

Fortunately, most vendors have resource management software that, at the very least, lets IT departments allocate resources for political as well as functional reasons.

They're Not Alone

Vendors have an ulterior motive for pushing large-scale Unix servers: Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT has taken away most of the low-end workstation/server business. The high end is a place where Windows NT cannot follow.

Unix offshoot Linux also is being checked out by many government agencies, but there has not been much Linux action at the high end yet.

"Linux doesn't play here," Aberdeen's Becknell said. "It isn't big enough yet. It isn't an enterprise operating system, and no one is going to bet the business on Linux yet."

In any event, Linux is not officially Unix. That means it cannot be used for many contracts that specify industry-standard Unix.

For those who have been in the computer industry for a while, the large-scale Unix servers look awfully familiar. In many ways, a completed Unix consolidation effort ends up looking rather like a mainframe data center.

In fact, although the operating system it uses does support all the Unix application program interfaces, the high-end server that IBM is pushing actually is a mainframe - a direct descendent of those monstrously large boxes of 20 years ago. But don't tell anybody.

Of course, the real difference is that the word "mainframe" is an anachronism. Unix servers, especially in a consolidated environment, are hot at the moment. Whether they prove worthy of the hype seems to depend on the care with which they are implemented.

-- Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly, N.J. He can be reached at jl4hire@ix.netcom.com.

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At a Glance

* STATUS: Many agencies have begun to consolidate their Unix servers, either by bringing together their distributed servers into a common facility or by putting the workload of several small servers onto one larger system.

* ISSUES: Agencies can lower the costs of systems management by setting up a core staff of administrators to manage many servers. Also, an agency can spread the cost of buying systems management, storage and related technology across organizations, giving smaller offices access to otherwise unaffordable technology.

* OUTLOOK: Good. Agencies that have consolidated say server consolidation provides immediate benefits, particularly by reducing personnel costs. But consolidation does have its pitfalls, including the huge demand put on network bandwidth by the data flowing in and out of the data center.

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