Hardware Today: Bolstering Benefits for Benelogic

Monday Jun 20th 2005 by Drew Robb
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Benelogic, an ASP that specializes in employee benefits, recently reorged its infrastructure from Dell PowerEdge servers to a single Unisys ES7000 600.

Benelogic is an application service provider (ASP) that offers applications to simplify employee benefits administration and streamline benefits data transfer. Recently, demand forecasts revealed it had only a few months before server capacity would be exceeded.

"Our projections indicated that within six months we would exceed the capacity of our Dell serves and no longer be able to offer our customers the performance level we have promised," said Kendall Miller, CIO of Benelogic. "As it became impractical to scale out our database and its associated applications, we decided to scale up."

The company opted for the latest midrange server from Unisys: the ES7000 600. The server has two partitions, with eight Xeon MP 64-bit processors and 32 GB of memory in each partition.

Benefit ASP

"It was almost as expensive to upgrade our 32-bit Dell servers as it would have been to buy new Dell PowerEdge 6850 64-bit servers. That got us looking at other 64-bit alternatives, and Microsoft told us that Unisys had tremendous expertise in that area." — Kendall Miller, CIO, Benelogic

Benelogic was formed in February 2000 by a team of professionals in the fields of human resources (HR), benefits, IT, and insurance. Subsequent collaboration addressed the evolving needs of the employee benefits industry. The Timonium, Maryland-based company developed a variety of applications, including an employee self-service portal, benefits administration, online billing tools, an HR portal, a client management portal, and interfaces for payroll and HR systems.

The organization currently has 57 servers in its production environment. Most of these are Dell boxes. They include 15 Web servers and multiple backup and directory servers running Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003. At the heart of the data center are two Dell PowerEdge 6650 servers acting as the back end for the entire operation, as a clustered pair of servers running SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition. Each one has four 1.6 GHz Xeon MP 32-bit processors and 8 GB of memory.

On the storage side, the company has a storage-area network (SAN) consisting of an EMC CLARiiON FC 4700 array and an EMC CX 500 array. Their total capacity is 9 TB, and Miller reports they are currently about 85-percent full. A StorageTek L180 tape library is used for backup. The company has dual DS3 Internet lines from AT&T, each with transfer rates of 45 Mb/s. Rounding out the server room are BIG-IP hardware load balancers for redundancy, a Foundary Fast Iron 1500 switch, and an 80 kW uninterruptible power supply.

"We have a cyclical load due to the nature of benefits administration," says Miller. "We have two peaks a year, in midsummer and the end of the year."

Normally, the database deals with a sustained volume of 600 queries per second and 300 transactions per second. During peak periods that can rise to 1,500 queries and 700 transactions per second. In addition, a heavy load of background batch processing can add significantly to overall traffic.

Data modeling using SQL Server's built-in analysis tools predicted Benelogic's projected customer and database loads rising sharply. Coupled with revisions of key applications to improve its service portfolio, Benelogic anticipated a major ramp up in query and transaction rates by the end of the year. As this had the potential to put Benelogic below its service-level agreement, the company began investigating its upgrade options 18 months ago.

"The Unisys ES7000 is performing really well in SQL benchmarks. There is no doubt that the 8-way 64-bit processor will significantly improve the performance we can offer to our customers." — Kendall Miller

"We really needed more disk space and additional performance to handle the load," says Miller. "However, we were noticing a tapering off of performance of Dell 6650 and our storage systems.

He notes that Dell's Gold Support did a great job when a specific problem was isolated with a hardware element. Within a short time, the new part had arrived. When it came to tuning existing systems to heighten performance, however, Miller found the support line insufficient. If something was going a little slower, it was not regarded as being a problem. In his estimation, Dell struggled to help with tuning to improve throughput.

The breaking point occurred with SQL Server 2000, however.

"You have to be looking ahead for when SQL Server hits a bottleneck," says Miller. "You seem to be fine on SQL Server until you are dead, and we also experienced a slowdown in writing to our EMC CLARiiON box."

Benelogic called on Unisys for assistance to tune the existing Dell environment and improve its storage capabilities. Unisys technicians improved disk throughput by adding an EMC CX 500 array with a RAID 10 configuration for SQL Server production data and tuning the Dell PowerEdge 6650 boxes. Result: Unisys pushed up the processor utilization rate from 25 percent processor utilization at peak load to 75 percent and tripled the query and transaction rates.

"Unisys was interested in solving our problems systemically, not just selling us one of its own boxes," says Miller. "They were eager to optimize our Dell servers."

>> Migration and Future Plans

Within a year, however, SQL Server again bottlenecked. Benelogic once again looked at upgrading its Dell processors. Because of their age, it was determined to not be the best way to go. Adding memory wouldn't resolve database woes, and adding better processors might only have brought a 10 percent to 15 percent boost due to existing bus throughput. As the company began preparing to double the load over the next 12 months to be ready for the predicted uptick in demand, it looked more closely at 64-bit computing.

"It was almost as expensive to upgrade our 32-bit Dell servers as it would have been to buy new Dell PowerEdge 6850 64-bit servers," says Miller. "That got us looking at other 64-bit alternatives, and Microsoft told us that Unisys had tremendous expertise in that area."

Benelogic first checked out Itanium 2 but found it cost-prohibitive. Instead, it selected the new Unisys ES7000 600 machine with the Intel Xeon MP 64-bit processor — 3.3 GHz EM64T chips.

The Unisys ES7000 600 is sold in cells of up to four processors. You can group up to eight cells for a total of 32 CPUs inside one ES7000 box. The company has initially purchased four cells. Miller says this gives him many possible configurations depending on the type of load: four by four, two by eight, or even one by 16. All it takes is a few clicks and a reboot to tailor the configuration to a specific workload.

What about the original Dell 6650 servers? Benelogic is redeploying them in its data center. They are being repurposed as backup servers for data storage and batch processing server.

And, instead of having to buy another Unisys box when that one runs out of room, Miller can add as many as four more cells to it. It is also compatible with dual-core Xeon technology. Each cell has 16 GB of memory (32 GB per partition), and each partition has four Fibre Channel controllers (two per cell) that connect to the EMC SAN. Each cell is a 3U rackmount.

The company is also running Unisys' management software, known as Sentinel. Sentinel manages up to eight cells and stores all configuration information for each cell.

"Sentinel monitors all Unisys hardware and can call home in the event of a problem," says Miller. I'll be contacted if there is an issue to resolve, or told that a replacement part is on the way. This means I don't need to train people to monitor the system."

What about the original Dell 6650 servers? Benelogic is redeploying them in its data center. They are being repurposed as backup servers for data storage and batch processing server. Miller expects to get at least two more years from them.

"The Unisys ES7000 is performing really well in SQL benchmarks," says Miller "There is no doubt that the 8-way 64-bit processor will significantly improve the performance we can offer to our customers."

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