Investing in Linux

Investing in Linux

Once enamoured with the gleaming promise of client/server computing, Boscov's Department Store has decided that the architecture's increasingly cumbersome financial and technological weight was no longer worth carrying.

For more than 20 years, Boscov's IT operation was anchored by the classic IBM 370-compatible mainframe. The US-based retailer updated that environment during the past decade with dozens of Windows NT-based servers to handle its rapidly expanding bricks-and-mortar and electronic businesses. But in the past few years the investment needed to feed its client/server beast was tearing ever larger chunks out of its IT budget. And like most retailers operating on slim profit margins, Boscov's IT budget is typically just 1.2 to 1.4 per cent of its $US1 billion in sales.

"In some respects the decision [to go client/server] wasn't a bad one. The problem is you not only need more and more servers for your production, but servers for your testing environment and the infrastructure associated with all that," said Harry Roberts, Boscov's CIO.

Boscov's was adding an average of one server per month for the last few years, Roberts said, swelling its production servers to about 50, plus another 50 non-production servers. In addition to the complexity and expense of backing up a growing server farm, Roberts had to add a server administrator for every 10 servers, boosting his head count costs as well.

"Not to be overly critical of Microsoft, but because of the way they produce things, you need to apply patches regularly or you are at risk. I eventually decided to stop adding bodies to my staff and to stem the use of Microsoft server software, because it is just too expensive to upgrade every two years," Roberts said.

To solve his problem, Roberts went back to the future, blending relatively new OS technology, Linux, with an almost ancient OS, namely an adapted version of IBM's VM, first introduced in 1964. Earlier this year Roberts bought an IBM z900 Model 102 mainframe, using VM with Linux running underneath. This allows Boscov's, from one location, to host more than 100 virtual Linux servers, which will gradually replace the NT servers over the next year.

Not only will the IBM-Linux system save on server hardware, software and personnel costs, it also significantly reduces costs associated with electricity and floor space, Roberts noted.

His decision to go with Linux was not a case of love at first sight. Roberts first looked into Linux a little more than a year ago, but he was not convinced the technology was robust enough to solve his problem or to save the company money.

"I now have much more confidence in Linux as a platform. I see the [z900 with Linux] as a four or five-year computing platform for us," he said.

An added cost benefit of the z900's architecture is its processor-on-demand capability that allows Roberts, with a phone call to IBM, to turn on and off additional processors in the system depending on the company's computing demands.

"I just have to decide if I need the capacity on the mainframe side or the Linux side, make the phone call, and in a few minutes I have that new capacity," Roberts said.

Having this sort of flexible computing power will be vital as Boscov's moves its e-commerce site to the Linux-based mainframe running IBM's WebSphere Application Server. With Boscov's online sales expected to grow by 100 per cent per year, being able to quickly add new capacity to handle sharp spikes in demand is essential, Roberts said.

The decision to consolidate the NT-based server farm's workload onto the mainframe was made easier because some of the key IBM applications were already ported to Linux.

"In one sense we were lucky in that our predominant database server environment, [IBM's] DB2 Universal Database, was already being supported under Linux. This is what makes it easy to move half the servers over now and the other half next year," Roberts said.

According to Roberts, training his IT staff to develop and support the platforms went smoothly because some long-time employees remembered VM. "There was no big learning curve involved."

The new host-based platform has not only short-term benefits but longer-term ones as well. Roberts believes the new environment will help Boscov's better transition toward more robust wireless technologies. And with the reduction in overall IT expenses, the company has more resources to invest in these and other emerging technologies.

"Over the next 24 months we will change to more of an XML-based infrastructure, which will be cheaper for both us and our vendors. We have been enamoured with all this B2C (business-to-consumer) stuff, but the reality is B2B is where a lot of the action will be, and XML will help bring that together."

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