Hardware Today: Transforming Advance Transformer

Monday Mar 14th 2005 by Drew Robb
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Previously, the company ran home-grown apps on a mainframe and housed data in decentralized silos. Server consolidation made virtualization possible and simplified management. Now, HP 9000s run Oracle 9i and SAP ERP, and data lives on a SAN.

Advance Transformer has come a long way in the past five years. At the start of the millennium, it was a mainframe shop running home-grown apps and housing data in decentralized silos. Today, its HP 9000s run Oracle 9i and the SAP Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) package. Data resides centrally in an HP storage-area network (SAN).

"Our mainframe days meant plenty of downtime, poor performance, and high costs," said Julius Tomei, director of information technology at Advance Transformer. "Via server consolidation and virtualization, we can now do a lot more with less people."

Advance Transformer is based in Rosemont, Ill. It has been manufacturing fluorescent and high-intensity discharge ballasts for lamp and lighting manufacturers since 1945.

Five years ago, Advance Transformer's aging IBM mainframe environment was primarily AS/400-driven. Over the years, the company's internally developed billing, financial, and business-related applications evolved. The recent integration to relocate data to a data warehouse required labor-intense coding and customization, but was worthwhile, as this single repository resulted in a central spot for summarizing and reporting on data from different applications and data stores.

"We had data residing everywhere, mainly in flat files," said Tomei. "Reporting took a long time, the information wasn't very accurate, and it was hard to go back to find out what was good data and what was bad."

The company uses a multitier architecture with its various ERP applications split among various 7410 servers to spread the load. The two 8400 servers host the production database and a mirror image for failover. A half-million transactions a day come through on ERP. b>

Simple reports took a very long time to generate, and the monthly financial reporting routine always missed its deadlines. According to Tomei, one month wasn't closed out until halfway through the next month.

When the company decided to move to SAP ERP, it switched to HP hardware running HP-UX. Initially, that meant 17 n-class servers (16 for ERP and one for a time-keeping application), which were recently upgraded to HP 9000s. Advance Transformer used the transition to consolidate to six servers — four RP 7410s and two RP 8400s.

The company uses a multitier architecture with its various ERP applications split among various 7410 servers to spread the load. The two 8400 servers host the production database and a mirror image for failover. A half-million transactions a day come through on ERP.

"Should an application or the database fail, the workload is carried with other servers," said Tomei. "We test our failover capabilities on a quarterly basis, and we've had to rely on it once during a software failure."

The four 7410 servers are partitioned into 15 logical servers. While some are used in production , others are used for development, testing, and quality assurance. By virtualizing the servers, Advance Transformer has shrunk the hardware footprint in its data center.

"With fewer physical servers, management and maintenance are made much easier," said Tomei. "I estimate time savings of 10 to 20 percent."

Blade Additions

While the HP 9000 forms the foundation of Advance Transformer's data center, Intel boxes have been introduced as application servers, file and print servers, Web servers, and intranet servers. Through the years, the organization has accumulated 60 to 70 rackmounted ProLiant servers.

With its mission-critical servers being consolidated, the IS department decided to phase out the rackmounted machines. Thus, HP BladeSystem servers are replacing aging ProLiant systems. Over time, all of the rackmounted models will be retired. As new servers are needed, new blades are added.

If he had it to do over, Tomei admits he would have given virtualization a little more thought up front.

"So far we have eliminated six servers out of the racks and moved onto the blades," said Tomei. "Eventually, we will be moving everything off the old rackmounted servers onto blades."

Advance Transformer has opted for HP BL20P dual-processor blades because of their virtualization capabilities. The company has taken three roads to virtualization:

  1. Citrix-based thin clients connected to data center blades are used at seven manufacturing facilities throughout North American.

    "The combination of HP blades and Citrix is actually running faster than having factory floor clients," said Tomei. "Further, the factories don't require any real maintenance and can be managed remotely."

  2. VMware's virtualization software is used on file and print servers and other servers running heavy loads. The company consolidates a few such servers onto a single blade operating as several virtual servers; another blade is used for failover.

  3. The IS department also uses built-in HP tools for virtualization.

"We'd never done virtualization before, yet my network guys report that it wasn't hard to accomplish," said Tomei.

If he had it to do over, Tomei admits he would have given virtualization a little more thought up front. Applications, for example, have different demands. Therefore, it takes an understanding of things like shared loads to set up virtualization most efficiently.

>> The SAN Touch

The SAN Touch

To take full advantage of its consolidated infrastructure, Advance Transformer added a SAN. The addition of its XP1024 SAN means that most organizational storage has been moved from a direct-attached storage to a centralized SAN model.

With the old racks, the IS organization had to have a separate storage device for every server — generally RAID controllers and SCSI drives. As the hardware aged, it became harder to support. Nowadays, the blades are attached directly to the SAN via a Fibre Channel card in the blade.

"Having the SAN makes it easy to move storage resources around and have capacity available," said Tomei. "It also simplified backup, recovery, and disaster recovery."

As recently as a few years ago, backing up individual servers required a window of 12 to 14 hours. Today, it takes six hours or less to back up everything over a Gb Ethernet backbone.

What about a migration to HP Integrity servers now that the HP 9000 is basically at the end of its development life? No further upgrades will be made to the system as the OEM gradually phases its user base to HP-UX.

Advance Transformer has no plans to move to this new platform. As it recently invested in several HP 9000s, it is planning to squeeze another five to seven years of useful life out of this hardware. And with its consolidation efforts reaping big dividends, Tomei sees no need to move.

"There is no doubt we have experienced big savings through virtualization and consolidation," said Tomei. "I can do a lot more today with fewer people. Now that we have our data in real time, it takes us one hour to close out the month, compared to two weeks during our mainframe days.

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