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Hardware Today: Server Migration Strategies Made Easy

Tuesday Feb 22nd 2005 by Drew Robb

Whether you're upgrading within the same vendor's server line, standardizing on a more open platform, or consolidating onto fewer, more-powerful machines, these seven basic guidelines make for an effective migration strategy.

The funny thing about server migrations is that no vendor ever claims to lose customers from its platforms, yet at the same time, each steadily gains business from all of its rivals.

The fact remains, however, that migrations come in just about every size, shape, and variety: Windows to Linux, mainframe to Unix, NetWare to Windows, as well as upgrades within a specific vendor line — HP e3000 to Integrity, Windows NT to Windows 2003, VAX to Alpha, and so on. The primary reasons for such moves generally boil down to upgrades or standardization on a more open platform, as well as consolidation onto fewer, more-powerful machines.

"Most of the server migrations that we see are either upgrades to larger systems or rehosting to a new platform," said Chip Nickolett of Comprehensive Solutions, a systems integration company based in Brookfield, Wis. that has overseen scores of migrations. "The biggest overall trends are standardization of platforms and consolidation of smaller older systems to larger newer systems."

"Unless there is a solid understanding of what supports the current environment, it will be extremely difficult to plan for a migration that is timely, within budget, and delivers what is expected" — Chip Nickolett, Comprehensive Solutions

Although the various vendors can't achieve any kind of consensus as to who is migrating to what platform, they do agree on many of the key strategies and best practices enterprises should harness to ease the pain of an upgrade or server change out.

1. Plan carefully: Planning might not make perfect, but it does lead to far fewer imperfect migrations.

"Lack of planning is one of the downfalls of server migrations," said Loretta Li-Sevilla, director of worldwide customer programs for HP Enterprise Servers. "Each step must be well thought out in order to avoid business disruption."

Early in the planning phase, inventory all hardware, peripheral devices, and software assets. With that data in hand, it is easier to objectively consider what upgrades and replacements are necessary or desired. In addition, this puts the organization in a position to analyze the financial, technical, and business impacts of the intended migration.

"Unless there is a solid understanding of what supports the current environment, it will be extremely difficult to plan for a migration that is timely, within budget, and delivers what is expected," said Nickolett.

2. Benchmark: One vital ingredient of the planning process is benchmarking. We recommend gathering key performance and service-level metrics for use as a baseline goal. Determine how long a process takes on the current system so that when the new system is in acceptance testing you can ascertain if it's faster, slower, or the same as the new system. This also provides a quantifiable counterpoint when users or system managers later voice opinions about "how much better the old system was." With actual statistics in hand, you can either throw the numbers back at them or take fast action to remedy genuine performance issues.

Applications are typically a major constraint, as most enterprises want to retain their current functionality, look and feel, and minimize the cost/risk of major changes.

When Comprehensive Solutions conducts a migration it typically has a production lead identify a system's key functionality. It then sends someone to the shop floor with a stopwatch to gather metrics. We recommend doing this several times during work shifts to hit peak loads. After the migration, repeat the same process and generate a report to illustrate before and after pictures. This can go far in securing user and management buy-in.

3. Teamwork: No large migration is done by the systems manager alone. The networking, security, financial, management, and user constituencies must all be involved for accurate planning and effective execution. Also, more than one internal project team is usually necessary for a project to succeed.

"The migration team also has to encompass suppliers, consultants, and external application specialists," said HP's Li-Sevilla.

4. Focus on Applications: Application planning is such an important step that it merits its own section. Applications are typically a major constraint, as most enterprises want to retain their current functionality, look and feel, and minimize the cost/risk of major changes. No one wants to throw out 20 years of business logic just to have the "latest" system, as this would quickly turn the upgrade into a significant downgrade.

When a mission-critical business application is involved, or when moving from one database to another, great care must be taken. When homegrown applications are to be maintained, it may even be necessary to reverse-engineer the software, discover the business rules, map out what the application does, and then map it into its new environment. Planners, therefore, must understand the data formats, the cost of retaining old applications, and any functionality that will be lost by moving to a packaged application. They then must carefully weigh the pros and cons of all possible options.

>> Consolidate, use, and plan

5. Consolidate hardware, software, and operating systems: Consolidation across the board appears to be an ongoing trend in IT. Fewer servers doing more work, software from only a handful of vendors, and fewer operating systems is the preferred approach. That said, the "one operating system to rule them all" concept is on the decline. Enterprises may desire fewer operating systems, but they also want some choice.

"We have noticed a broader use of operating systems than before," said Li-Sevilla. "Customers are looking to harness the right operating system and platform for a specific usage."

6. Use vendor tools, resources, and other freebies: Most vendors offer a host of tools, resources, and planning materials to smooth the migration path. In many cases, they are offered free of charge — provided, of course, you are using the gear of that specific vendor.

Microsoft, for example, offers a wealth of tools specific to various migrations. Anyone wanting to move from NT, NetWare, or Unix to Windows Server 2003 will be well-serviced with Microsoft-authored resources.

It makes sense, then, to be fully aware of the intended fate for your platform of choice, and to invest only in those that have a future.

"In order to assist customers in the server migration process, Microsoft has numerous resources, including toolkits, services, courses, best practice whitepapers, books, and Web casts," said Samm DiStasio, a manager in the Windows Server group at Microsoft. "Through our work with partners, customers, and industry experts, we have developed frameworks and prescriptive guides that help with planning, deploying, and implementing server migration and consolidation projects."

7. Think ahead: Most vendors know where they are going in the next several years. HP, for example, has a detailed road map that outlines its ongoing efforts to streamline its server hardware into three main lines — Integrity, ProLiant, and NonStop. This road map extends years into the future and details planned upgrades, changes, and product discontinuation dates. IBM, Sun, and other hardware vendors have similar plans.

It makes sense, then, to be fully aware of the intended fate for your platform of choice, and to invest only in those that have a future. By doing so, you can take advantage of trade-up programs and other incentives if you're moving from a platform that is, or will be, discontinued, to one that will be around for a long time.

Another avenue to consider is proof-of-concept offers whereby the vendor sets up a system under consideration alongside the existing environment in an attempt to demonstrate the value of the upgrade. The advantage of this is that you don't need to change a thing. HP, for example, offers up to $50,000 of proof-of-concept services for free in some instances.

Finally, think ahead in terms of your own needs. Yes, a 4-way processor may be enough today. But will it be enough two years from now? It may turn out to be more economical in the long run to purchase a computer system that supports eight processors instead of maxing out a 4-way system to save a few pennies in this year's budget.

"It is far better to design a system that meets today's goals while having the capacity for future growth," said Nickolett.

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