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1/27/2012
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Commodity Hardware Meets Mission-Critical Apps: Success Story

Here's how First American Title Insurance saved $800,000 by exchanging its HP Superdome hardware for commodity x86 servers, and resisted pressure to move from SQL to Oracle database technology.

First American Title Insurance has switched its core business system off an HP Superdome to standard x86 blades and resisted pressure to change one of the largest known implementations of Microsoft SQL Server--its First American Software Technology (FAST) application--into an Oracle database system.

That means First American recently became dependent on what some would call commodity systems, not always associated with high availability operations.

But CIO Larry Godec said he can depend on SQL Server 2008 and his set of HP Proliant servers running in what HP calls its Converged Infrastructure. CI integrates workload balancing, virtualization, disaster recovery, networking, and storage. HP committed in November to move Superdome reliability characteristics down into its CI running on Proliant servers.

First American's implementation is based on three Proliant DL980 G7 servers; each server contains eight sockets and each socket runs eight Xeon cores.

The firm's FAST is a custom application that First American built with .Net technologies and launched in 2002 as a replacement for 50 separate title and escrow systems, said Godec in an interview. FAST handles an average 7,500 title orders a day; First American is the second-largest title firm in the United States, with $4 billion in revenues.

Those orders, along with an accompanying $10 billion in escrow accounts used in house closings, amount to 8 million transactions a day, now running under Windows Server 2008 on a SQL Server database system that manages 16 TBs of data.

"When the family is sitting outside in the moving van waiting for the keys to the house, you can't have the title system go down," said Godec in an interview. House closings are routinely conducted in First American offices. So far there have been no service disruptions, he said.

[ Want to learn more about how storage is a component of HP Converged Infrastructure? See HP Confirms Next Generation EVA Array. ]

Godec said he's got 99.97% reliability, or as good as before, while pocketing $800,000 savings in capital expense on hardware and SQL Server licenses--his CPU count dropped from 32 to 24; he's using half the data center floor space formerly occupied by Superdome; and saving 70% of his former electricity costs. His extract, transform, and load times for the data warehouse dropped from eight hours to 2.5 hours. In addition, transactions run 30% faster, and FAST is simultaneously serving 850 title offices around the United States with fast response times.

"We're the only company in the industry with a single consolidated system working across all offices," said Godec, an approach that improves closing service response times, he said. He acknowledges the system is faster under today's housing conditions, when demand has slacked, but First American is using only 35-45% of the available processing power. "We could double our workload," he noted.

First American's migration to standard x86 servers is another sign of how far the x86 architecture has come, in this case, replacing 32 HP Integrity serves (built on Itanium chips) in First American's former Superdome. That system in turn had replaced a 16 Integrity-node Superdome, which in turn had replaced an eight CPU Unisys mainframe. With more integrated sets of x86 technologies being made available not only from HP but also Dell, Cisco, and IBM, older high reliability systems are being replaced by lower cost hardware.

"We can run our most mission critical system in an Intel and Microsoft Windows environment. We don't have to have a mainframe," he said.

That's been a revelation to Godec, who in previous jobs in consumer products and oil and gas was a mainframe user. At one point, he concluded the company would have no choice but to shift FAST from SQL Server to Oracle and higher powered, higher reliability systems. As the newly commissioned CIO 10 years ago, Godec had to go to his CEO and tell him that SQL Server had run out of horsepower on the Unisys hardware.

"I told him we could convert it to Oracle, but that would take six months," Godec recalled. But the CEO responded that he had committed the firm to have a consolidated system by the year's end in briefing calls with Wall Street analysts, or sooner than the conversion could be made.

Godec kept SQL Server but became an early adopter of a 16-node Superdome from HP, which eventually became a 32-node unit. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows on HP Itanium servers, forcing another hardware migration, which was completed in mid-2011 to the Proliant DL980 blades.

While Godec would like 99.99% reliability, he's happy with 99.97%, considering his service level agreement with HP only calls for 99.95%. "There's been no downtime," he said, but he acknowledges the test is yet to come. "The housing [market] soon won't be as bleak as it's been for the last 3-4 years," he said.

And the FAST system with its three servers is a small, if crucial, fraction of First American's total operation. It has over 100 applications running on 6,000 servers, and it's going to consolidate more operations into the CI approach, he said.

More than 700 IT pros gave us an earful on database licensing, performance, NoSQL, and more. That story and more--including a look at transitioning to Win 8--in the new all-digital Database Discontent issue of InformationWeek. (Free registration required.)

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