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iSeries fights server sprawl

Server consolidation is a hot issue. People are consolidating server farms to address maintenance concerns. But what about heating issues and power loads?

Like strip malls in the suburbs, cheap, convenient x86 servers have overrun the IT landscape. They get into your data center and spread, taking on business applications and space. All of the sudden, you've got to start backing them up, buying more of them. And before you realize it, you have more than you can handle.

One of the unexpected consequences of the commoditization of the enterprise server is the "care and feeding" aspect of the modern server farm. Despite advances in Wintel server technology and availability, the inherent structure of numerous physical servers complicates IT management. And that observation is something IBM iSeries executives hope to cash in for the future -- consolidating x86 servers under the iSeries umbrella.

In fact, it's become such a hot issue that IBM presented an award for consolidation to Canadian customs brokerage GHY International at the spring COMMON users' conference last month.

Prior to consolidating in 2002, Winnipeg, Manitoba-based GHY ran an iSeries 720 and seven x86 boxes running Linux, Domino and Windows. As the organization grew to meet the demand of a growing Canadian export market, Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT, considered adding nine more x86 boxes that would have doubled the footprint and the work load.

When Fortlage proposed to hire more staff to manage the new servers, executives denied his request. He had to come up with something else. He looked inside and saw an IT department tied up with the care and feeding of a pool of x86 servers.

"Our IT team of three was spending 95% of our time managing the server farm," Fortlage said. "We needed to be able to focus on business functions."

According to Charles King, principal analyst at Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, moving all of the workloads to a box where everything is managed on a single dashboard would allow IT staff to maintain resources more efficiently.

"Also, you need to look at the physical job of maintaining x86 servers," King said. "Everything is plugged into everything else. If there is a failure down the line, you need to track it down."

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Cooler rooms or cooler servers?

According to Jim Herring, product manager for the iSeries, it's not unusual for even the smallest shops to run 15 file servers. The Intel servers start taking on important parts of the company's business, so you have to take care of them. You may not be running your core business on them, but if they fail, you suffer.

"Customers start backing them up, securing them and buying extra servers," Herring said. "So the iSeries value proposition is, let us take that management headache from you. Bring the Intel servers into the iSeries environment through an integrated xSeries server or adapter. The data will be stored on our disk; we can back that up as part of a standard backup procedure. You can manage the user IDs in Windows from your iSeries."

Fortlage saw that value. So instead of compounding GHY's problem with more hardware, he decided to migrate his server farm to an iSeries 270, which is integrated with two xSeries servers, and an iSeries 820 with logical partitioning (LPAR) capabilities.

LPAR is the division of a computer's processors, memory and storage into multiple sets of resources so that each set of resources can be operated independently with its own operating system and applications. The number of LPARs that can be created depends on the system's processor model and resources available. Each partition can communicate with the other partitions as if the other partition is in a separate machine.

Today, GHY's IT team of three is spending 5% on maintenance. It's taken three years to get that efficient. But now Fortlage can use capacity on-demand and LPAR within the iSeries environment to deal with unexpected issues.

"Whenever Bagle or other viruses hit, we would see 10,000 hits a day at our gateway. So we would just allocate more CPUs to that server," Fortlage said. "It took 30 seconds to give more power to the LPAR."

Let's get physical

While it was downplayed by IBM, as well as by Fortlage, who said it wasn't a big issue for his company, consolidation can have a serious savings impact on cooling and electricity in the data center.

When asked about the physical benefits of consolidation, Herring could not provide any specific metrics associated with moving from the server farm to an iSeries.

"If you're an auto mechanic, do you care how much energy your garage spends? But if you're the manager of that garage, that issue becomes important," said King, making an analogy to iSeries shops. "It may not be of enormous importance to IT people, but it will be to executives."

An 8-way iSeries box is roughly the size of a small dorm refrigerator. Compare that to two or three racks. All of the sudden, you start to realize the iSeries is a physical entity that it easier to power and cool, according to King.

And over the course of a year, you could see significant benefits to the cost of maintaining it.

"When you start to get into server partitioning with a CFO, it doesn't take long for his eyes to roll back in his head and for him to fall gently to the floor," King said. "But what was your data center power bill last year? What would he say if you could cut it by 50%?"

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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