Burbank Gets Higher Performance In Move To Blade Servers

The California city's new hardware replaced Sun Microsystems Netra servers, IBM System P servers, and Hewlett-Packard ProLiant DL360s.

The city of Burbank, Calif., needed speed and flexibility in its hardware when it decided about three years ago to upgrade its Oracle ERP system. For Mahesh Saraswat, the city's technical project manager, the best choice was blade servers, but for the other stakeholders, moving to such a dramatically different architecture was awfully scary.

"It was a cultural struggle," Saraswat said of trying to sell the idea to business and IT managers. "People don't want to touch anything new." In addition, city departments often pay for their own servers and like to see a box that they can call their own. Blades are hidden in chassis and don't offer the same feeling of ownership. "To them [department heads], it looks like one big computer," Saraswat said.

In 2004, Saraswat was new to his job. Before becoming a city worker, he was an independent consultant. Before that, he had worked for Oracle. To convince people blades were the best choice, Saraswat first had to get them to trust the new guy. "I wanted to change their operations and data center, and it took awhile to build up their confidence."

Patience, hand holding, and a strong argument for making the change eventually won, so in September 2004 the new IBM BladeCenter chassis and blades arrived, and work began.

Burbank is not alone in its choice of blades to consolidate servers and reduce costs. Sales of blades are in the double digits year to year and by 2010 are expected to account for 20% of the overall server market from about 5% last year, according to Gartner. IBM is the market leader, followed by Hewlett-Packard.

Burbank's new hardware replaced Sun Microsystems Netra servers, IBM System P Servers, and Hewlett-Packard ProLiant DL360s. The machines, which had their own internal storage, mostly ran the Oracle ERP system and ESRI's geographic information system, which maps the city's infrastructure, such as power lines, sewage, and cables. The catalyst for the migration was the need to upgrade the Oracle applications from the 1999 version to 10.7.

With the old hardware, Burbank used four operating systems: AIX, Linux, Solaris, and Windows. With the new system, the city dropped Solaris and made a long-term commitment to eventually consolidate all applications on Linux and Windows, something that has yet to be achieved. The reason is not all applications used by the city run on Linux.

In fact, Linux also caused delays in deploying the blade servers. The lack of drivers for some hardware was a problem. For example, the city had to wait about four weeks for QLogic to deliver a Linux driver for its Fibre Channel host bus adapter, which was used in connecting blade chassis to the city's new IBM System Storage DS4300. "It wasn't a major delay," Saraswat said. "It was just some of the challenges in the initial installation of the hardware."

A major change in moving to blade servers was the need for a separate storage area network. This added to the learning curve for the IT department, since it also had to learn how to use the monitoring and management tools for IBM's BladeCenter. The process took less than two months, because IBM provided lots of documentation for the blade system and the DS4300. "We didn't go to any classes," Saraswat said. "We just learned by ourselves." IBM partner Sirius Computer Solutions installed the storage system.

Saraswat and his team started rolling out applications running on the new systems in February 2005. Among the immediate advantages was speed. The internal input/output connections in the old servers were about 500 Mbytes per second, while the Ethernet connection between the blade chassis and the SAN was 2 Gbytes per second.

Other advantages were inherent in the blade server architecture. For one, applications that ran on Solaris were consolidated on to a Linux blade, which left one less OS to maintain and fewer software licenses, Saraswat said. A server outage was also easier to handle because a broken blade could be swapped out with a spare.

Overall, the blade/SAN combination led to a 40% reduction in total cost of ownership over the old system, Saraswat said. Part of that drop came from the elimination of one IT position and the fact that the new systems came with a three-year, on-site maintenance support package, which means Burbank did not have to pay extra for support during that timeframe.

The scale-out approach of blade servers has proven to be an advantage as Burbank adds applications. If more processing power is needed, then the city adds more blades. In stacking the servers in a chassis, however, Saraswat advises that at least one slot stay empty, in order to increase airflow for cooling and to avoid excessive heat from power consumption.

About a month ago, Burbank started on what Saraswat calls "phase two" of the project, which is building server clusters, so that if a blade goes down, the application can continue to run on other hardware. In building the environment, the city is using Oracle's Real Application Clusters tools, which support blades and Linux.

Once clusters are created, the city plans to move them to different geographical locations for protection against a disaster. If one group of servers gets knocked off the network, then others would pickup the workload. Burbank is in the earthquake-prone Los Angeles Basin.

Overall, Saraswat is pleased with the move to blades and was hard pressed to name any disadvantages from the old system. "I don't really have any," he said.

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