Power Play at City Hall

The City of Minneapolis turns to Unisys Corp. for its solution to update its infrastructure

Much of the business of city government comes down to infrastructure management—things like patching potholes and collecting trash. But when the City of Minneapolis, Minn., decided to use the Internet to automate its business processes, it was obvious the information infrastructure would need updating, too.

Having migrated from mainframes to Compaq Proliant servers amid Y2K preparation, the city decided in early 2001 to begin replacing those 90 servers with larger mainframe-class e-@ction ES7000 servers from Unisys Corp.

The goal: A more scalable, reliable and economical backbone for the emerging "virtual city."

With two ES7000s in production and perhaps three more planned, Chief Information Officer Karl Kaiser says he's already saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware leases, software licenses and maintenance costs while adding Unisys-guaranteed five-nines (99.999 percent) availability for existing applications and future ones like wireless data entry.

Details: City of Minneapolis

Organization: City of Minneapolis

Goal: Provide the high-availability infrastructure needed for a "Virtual City of Minneapolis."

Team leader: Karl Kaiser, CIO

Partners: Ray Zabilla, project manager and chief executive officer, Bitsolutions LLC (White Bear Lake, Minn.)

Location: Minneapolis, Minn.

Web Site:

Scope: Replace underutilized servers with more efficient boxes—unifying the mixed AIX/NT environment on Windows 2000.

Equipment/Platform: 90 Compaq Proliant servers running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, Exchange 2000 and Oracle 8 and SQL Server 2000 applications.


  • Outfit two mainframe-class Unisys ES7000 servers with Windows 2000 Datacenter Server or Advanced Server.
  • Move some existing applications off 16 Compaq servers into partitioned logical servers.
  • Extend the life of low-powered desktop PCs with Citrix MetaFrame XP thin-client software. At least three more ES7000s are needed to complete the job.

Product: e-@ction Enterprise Server ES7000 from Unisys Corp.

Costs: The first unit, a 32-processor ES7000 with 24GB RAM and Unisys services, cost just under $600,000.


  • The city will see initial savings approaching $800,000 for service, licenses and leases while guaranteeing uptime.
  • Longer-term savings are anticipated as the city standardizes on the ES7000s' Windows 2000 operating system, eventually eliminating Unix by phasing out eight IBM RISC servers running AIX.

Lessons Learned: A lack of Datacenter-certified applications and compatibility problems (especially with EMC's network storage tools) still need to be resolved.

Milestones: After successful mid-2001 testing, the city struggled with organizational and technical holdups but still met its goal of putting the first two ES7000s into production by year's end.

Public Utility
Kaiser, a former Unisys employee, quickly decided on the ES7000 in January 2001 after reading Unisys' scalability and reliability claims. He knew his Windows NT 4.0 Compaqs couldn't provide the necessary uptime and manageability despite a decent reboot record. They were running at barely 25 percent of capacity, and IT tended to buy more to accommodate demand, which only exacerbated the support burden.

Admirable Efficiency
The ES7000, in contrast, proved to be an efficient powerhouse. After a demo at Unisys' office in Eagan, Minn., Kaiser and staff moved fast. By mid-year, Quality Assurance (QA) testing had begun.

The big question was whether Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.x and SQL Server 2000 applications could co-exist alongside Exchange 2000 inside the logical servers.

"There's always the risk that one application could impact another," says Ray Zabilla, the project manager and chief executive officer of contractor Bitsolutions LLC in White Bear Lake, Minn.

The two-month test went smoothly, but Zabilla says he learned an important lesson from it: Microsoft Datacenter Server must be closely managed.

The city bought a second, 8GB, 16-way ES7000 (four four-processor partitions) with Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Citrix MetaFrame XP for Windows to extend the life of 233- and 300MHz Pentium II desktops by running applications remotely on the server. That box will save $700,000 on leasing newer PCs, according to Jason Powell, director of Information and Technology Services Architecture.

Politics and Patch Jobs
The ES7000 rollout wasn't without minor bumps and roadblocks. An unrelated IP addressing problem on fire stations' DSL routers slowed deployment of a thin-client database until Cisco routers could be upgraded. And an early version of the server firmware required partitions to be powered up and shut down in an inconvenient order, but Unisys quickly installed a fix.

Microsoft's certification process for applications running on Datacenter Server has caused delays, as have brief hassles with third-party drivers. One prominent culprit: EMC Corp.'s Symmetrix network storage. Also, EMC's EDM tape-backup hardware had file-level conflicts with Windows before the Datacenter installation; resolving the EMC troubles caused an additional three-month holdup.

The city is looking into StorageTek and Veritas alternatives but has meanwhile settled for attaching Digital Linear Tape (DLT) drives directly to the ES7000s. "It's certainly not an enterprise solution, but it does provide some backup," says Troy Sprouls, a Unisys pre-sales executive.

Partitions needed tweaking. The city started with eight, four-way partitions, but Unisys determined two eight-ways (one with passive copies of applications in case of fail-over) would be more efficient for production servers, while two four-ways could hold active and passive applications undergoing QA.

The new configuration still leaves eight processors idle, but Zabilla says the server will be brought up to its maximum of two, 16-way partitions when the QA environment is moved (and processors added) to the second ES7000.

The city also gained economies of scale and easier management when Unisys performed a "rational consolidation" of the applications on a single instance of Datacenter Server. "It allowed them to add four additional processors to each of the two production machines," says Michael Finken, a Unisys technology consultant.

ES7000: Mini-mainframe?

Unisys's ES7000 series has its fingers in several technology pies. It's unusual in employing Intel processors—32-bit Pentium III Xeons, with 64-bit Itaniums planned—to provide up to eight partitionable "servers within a server."

Each server can run NT Server 4.0, Windows 2000 Advanced Server or Datacenter Server, or SCO Unixware 7.x. A dual-partition option allows the use of Unisys' Cellular MultiProcessing (CMP) architecture, a type of symmetric multiprocessing.

The machine's crossbar technology connects the processors to up to 64GB of shared RAM and 96 PCI slots. Like mainframes, the ES7000 has load balancing, fail-over and redundant, hot-swappable power supplies and cooling impellers.


Virtual City of the Future
In addition to saving around $50,000 on Microsoft licenses for the 16 Compaq servers, Kaiser says he'll cut $20,000 for service technicians, who are paid union rates. "That's an annual number that you have to pay for people who are on-call, whether they come in or not," he says.

Now, the city can more easily manage computing resources itself with bundled software that Unisys re-packages from NetIQ Corp.

For example, the software lets IT define parameters for particular applications, then automatically re-deploys processing power during demand peaks, such as in the morning when people check overnight e-mail. "If Exchange isn't doing much, those processors are freed up for something else," Powell explains.

In addition, a Windows 2000 PC-on-a-card inside each server is dedicated to monitoring conditions and sending automatic alerts. And Windows 2000 Terminal Services lets technicians perform most maintenance tasks remotely, including changing the BIOS.

Anecdotal evidence (not to mention SQL Server and Exchange load-simulation results) point to performance improvements, but Kaiser says current and likely future applications aren't transaction intensive and won't tax the system. The primary benefits, he says, are better availability, scalability and management.

The shiny new infrastructure brings Minneapolis into the front ranks of the "e-government" movement that is also sweeping the federal and state governments.

Kaiser says the need for such guaranteed 24x7 access is more acute at the municipal level.

"The states are where the rubber meets the sky, and the cities are where the rubber meets the road," he says. "We have a much closer relationship with the citizens."

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