The new power play

The new power play

Two disparate organisations - New Zealand Stock Exchange and Victoria University of Wellington - are among the early movers into the grid computing platform. They tell MIS why they are taking this path, while others are holding back.

Imagine the simplicity, business benefit and operational savings that could result from consolidating 21 operational databases into a single data source. Chris Corke, chief information officer for the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX), imagined just this - then drove the project that delivered it.

As a result, NZX became the first organisation in New Zealand to run Oracle's new 10g suite of database applications across a Red Hat enterprise Linux platform. Simultaneously, Oracle gained local traction for the Oracle 10g RAC (real application clusters) grid computing model it is touting worldwide as the answer to lower cost, better performance IT systems.

Fresh from working with Telecom on 3G mobile data network development, Corke was appointed CIO of NZX in August 2003. He immediately set about creating a business case for Linux and Oracle 10g - which he describes as "innovative new technology".

"I am a strong proponent of centralised database computing and it was the logical place to start. We had a number of disparate databases; you could see the inefficiencies," says Corke.

While Oracle had other Linux customers - two universities, Sky TV, Southern Cross Healthcare, Telecom and Contact Energy among them - NZX was the first to adopt Oracle's new 10g suite of applications; tailored, says Oracle, to perform in a grid computing environment.

Unlocking the grid

Grid architecture pools large numbers of servers and storage in an on-demand resource. Enterprise grids are designed to run applications in real-time.

The predicted benefits work because pooling disparate IT resources that automatically provision services means organisations can improve their application service levels, better manage systems, and so help reduce the operational costs of IT. It sounds simple and it often is.

Oracle claims grid technologies can be adopted with minimal investment and disruption if organisations standardise onto Intel processor-based platforms, Linux and an intelligent tiered networked storage approach. Databases, applications, servers and storage are consolidated onto a common platform and daily management tasks automated.

So where is commercial grid computing at in New Zealand? And of particular interest, who is embracing it with Linux?

This last is no moot point - New Zealand chief information officers have been uncharacteristically cautious about Linux for some time. For example, from 2002 through 2004, CIOs participating in the MIS100, which tracks the country's largest IT user organisations, followed a familiar litany when asked about future Linux plans. Linux was "interesting" they said, and their organisations were "interested".

However, concerns over support issues and a perceived lack of suitable business applications were the reasons most commonly cited for not initiating significant Linux platform trials.

In 2005 however, an Oracle 10g application can certainly be considered a "business application", the Red Hat version of Linux is now well established, and Oracle has a solid New Zealand flagship organisation - NZX - showcasing its 10g technologies over Linux.

Also boarding the grid on-ramp at different speeds and in different vehicles are New Zealand organisations like Southern Cross Healthcare, Telecom, Victoria University of Wellington and Sky TV. Their shift could indicate attitudes towards enterprise grid computing and the Linux operating platform are changing, if slowly.

Distributed computing

For Corke, however, the benefits of gaining a foothold in the grid computing environment are already evident at NZX.

Corke says NZX employees previously had to access multiple databases to extract information or to query and it was cost intensive to support these multiple resources and databases.

"With 10g we can control resource allocation for different units and redistribute the processing load."

He presented the benefits of centralising NZX's core databases on an Oracle 10g platform with Linux to NSX CEO Mark Weldon and discussed the risks of that.

An IT project team then worked with the NZX board to determine an ongoing technology strategy for implementation of the new architecture, first identifying low risk platforms and designing staged phases for a grid platform rollout.

Corke says the time frame between planning and implementation of the first phase was six months and on reflection there is little he would do differently.

"Whenever you make a change, you require good change management; even if you are moving from Oracle 8i to 10g where the user interface remains the same."

Corke says the business benefits - improved speed and reduced operational costs - are not sexy but are immediate and sustained.

"The business case always supported decreasing costs. Information consolidation means queries can be answered faster; there is more efficient IT resource allocation and reduced operational costs. There's also no need to keep up with the patches, levels, fixes, enhancements and high level changes that come from having multiple vendors - although we still keep an eye on all vendors and what they are doing."

Corke quotes the speed improvement of one particular query to NZX's 1.8 gigabyte HIST database. This now runs 600 times faster at 0.03 seconds over 10g and Linux compared with 36 seconds in the old database environment.

"It is the most extreme example of speed performance after 10g and is also to do with the move to Linux," he says.

With the consolidation of its core databases completed, NZX will now integrate CRM tools into its grid architecture - a project Corke says will be completed this year.

Academic interests

Predictably, several organisations watched the NZX project with interest - and continue to. One is Victoria University of Wellington (VUW), which in 2004 decided to migrate its legacy Oracle financials from a Unix operating platform to a Red Hat enterprise Linux environment - making it the first business system at the university to run on Linux. VUW decided to follow this with the implementation of an Oracle RAC 10g platform.

"Now [other universities] are watching us closely," says Wayne Morgan, VUW chief financial officer.

In all, VUW plans to replace eight Sun Unix servers running Solaris with 10 Dell PowerEdge servers running Red Hat Enterprise Linux at a cost of around $700,000.

Morgan says while student numbers have risen by 25 per cent over the past three years, VUW has maintained the same clerical staff numbers. As such, there has been a greater reliance on IT to get tasks done. He says the new financial system alone is expected to save $150,000 over the next five years.

"Many forms that are paper-based will be moved to the web. VUW also expects that providing a single source of information will allow its people to efficiently run a multitude of reports that currently require central support," he says.

The cost of VUW's 10g project includes a smaller upfront hardware and software licensing investment and a larger project management portion. Like NZX, VUW opted for staged implementation, starting with the financials upgrade and a new hardware platform; then adding Banner student administration and Talent 2 human resources applications.

"When this project will end depends on the other application owners throughout the university, but we hope to have it completed by end 2005," says Morgan.

He says as CFO, it took time to get the VUW IT team to "buy into" the Linux platform but that attitudes and perceptions to Linux have changed and evolved over a two-year period.

"There were early reservations about the robustness of the Linux platform. Then, towards the end of 2003 our IT people had a look at it and became very keen on the idea. We worked with them over next six months to develop an RFI and the approval process kicked off from there."

Morgan says he was happy to wait. "We didn't want to go ahead with anything they weren't comfortable with."

He says VUW's previous Sun Systems Unix environment was "very good" but the university had struggled to keep up with schedules for server replacement

"It was a big lump of money each time and we ended up operating servers beyond their practical use by date. So while the Unix environment was excellent, it was also a very expensive environment and we couldn't combine storage and back-up with separate servers."

The new platform immediately drove change at VUW and Morgan says VUW began to anticipate the benefits of the pending implementation before they were delivered.

"The [grid] environment gives us scalability; more and more of our applications get web front ends and we are pushing those apps out to users through web forums. If we roll out something like e-procurement and find demand is larger than we thought, we can just add in server hardware quite easily; if something goes down, then the system will just switch to using another server."

He says the data back-up and storage benefits are another coup. VUW will eventually have just one storage area network (SAN) to deal with and one back-up environment. "At the moment we have seven or eight boxes with separate disk arrays that have to be backed up separately. The system is constrained at night because the back-ups are so long they can last from 10 at night to 7 in the morning. [With one system] we are hoping back-up will happen concurrently with normal operations and run just three to four hours."

He points out that VUW's student customers are all 24x7 'shoppers'. "International students try to enrol at all sorts of funny hours - and you wouldn't believe the number of local students that enrol at two in the morning. For some reason, academics applying for research grants tend to apply late at night. We need an environment in which we have greater reliability and access to our systems 24x7."

He says VUW is only starting down the path to enterprise grid computing and would like to get all university systems and security applications on one RAC grid computing environment.

"At the moment we have six or seven largish system environments and lots of smaller ones like those for continuing education, the health system, the accommodation system and several large databases. We currently have over 150 servers that IT has to manage." At this stage, VUW will keep Linux and Wintel server farms separate.

When it comes to change management, Morgan says while a full Oracle 10g grid environment could be perceived as threatening by database administrators; communication is, as always, the key.

"The small team we have can get involved in planning and strategy; the grid environment will take away the day to day grunt work. And we are not planning any redundancies."<p/>Like Corke, Morgan is convinced grid computing is innovative, low risk and the way forward.<p/>

"We are confident. We don't think we are going into a high risk area. And I don't think New Zealand organisations can afford to ignore the cost savings and benefits this environment can deliver."

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