Under One Roof

In the early, rocky days of client/server computing, an exasperated MIS director once complained during an interview, "Maybe someday we'll have just one big server that will serve everything to everybody!" It was ironic. Wasn't that basically the model we were supposed to be leaving behind?

Well, maybe what goes around comes around. A lot has changed since the host/terminal days. Yet the efficiencies of a single machine performing the tasks of many smaller ones is still compelling, particularly when today's alternative is probably several clustered aging AS/400s, or server farms full of multiplying PCs, all requiring administration and support.

Increasing server performance has made server consolidation viable, and the AS/400, which has evolved from a pure OLTP machine to server-intensive computing, including client/server, web serving and workgroup applications, has become an ideal candidate for the central server.

Server consolidation is a vague term. (Some observers suggest "server optimization" as a preferable one.) Generally, it implies physical consolidation in either one of two scenarios: reducing multiple servers at a single site by combining them onto fewer servers, or even a single server; or centralizing multiple servers from remote facilities, or after a merger or acquisition, to a centralized site

In either case, the move is typically in response to administrative costs and manageability issues: an increasing total cost of ownership (TCO), the fragmentation of applications and data, lack of financial oversight and lost productivity due to system failures.

According to Wayne Kernochan, vice president for platforms at the Boston-based Aberdeen Group, it's only logical. "If you have two servers it's more cost effective, depending on the technology, to combine them on one box," he says. "You don't upgrade by adding more servers, you upgrade within the context of a single server. It gives you more scalability and availability, and you don't have to deal with the networking between servers."

According to a study released in the fall of 1998 by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, when several servers at a single site are consolidated on a single server, the annual cost per user can be reduced by 15 percent. When remote servers are consolidated to a large centralized server the saving is 13 percent, slightly less due to higher networking costs.

Chris Christiansen, IDC analyst and author of the 1998 report, points out that in some cases the benefits of consolidation will be gained incrementally, in stages. For example, a company with many remote servers may first centralize them in server farms at regional data centers, then from regional facilities centralize to a single data center.

"You still have multiple servers in regional centers. And the various business units or divisions retain ownership of data and applications, and have budgetary control. But they're being managed more efficiently," Christiansen says. "You get backups and upgrades on a regular, disciplined basis by a 24x7 staff."

The big benefits come when multiple servers are consolidated to a few large servers, according to Christiansen. "At that point you get a very disciplined approach to systems management, network management or storage management. And you get economies of scale by combining software licensing, data and storage."

Christiansen adds, however, that in practice it can be a hard sell to persuade the independent business units or subsidiaries to hand their data and applications over to a central IT authority. To overcome resistance, he recommends advocating a consolidation move on the basis of organizational benefits rather than costs. In fact, he points out, there are instances where consolidation may actually increase costs but still be justified by its business value.

An example, he says, would be a company that is moving from legacy applications to Internet applications, with the accompanying increase in traffic and adding 24x7 support for end users, suppliers and customers. "If a company is turning itself into a Web-based operation, cost can be a minor issue," Christiansen says. "The benefit would be to support more users, more customers, heavier workloads and transaction levels, and manage it efficiently with minimal investments in people, hardware and software."

The improvements to the AS/400 over the last few years, beginning with the conversion to RISC processing, then native Domino, the Integrated Netfinity Server (INS, the former IPCS), and the recent enhancements to V4R4, in particular Logical Partitioning (LPAR), have made it an increasingly attractive choice for a consolidation platform.

LPAR and INS are major advantages. According to Ted Scharf, worldwide server consolidation manager for IBM, based in Toronto, LPAR allows a multiprocessor AS/400's resources to be partitioned depending on the number of processors, currently up to 12 ways. The equivalent, from a consolidation point of view, of 12 servers.

"It's a solution to the immediate physical consolidation of machines," Scharf says. "Because you can still run independently, you avoid the headaches of going through data consolidation. You do the data center consolidation first and eventually work through the data and application consolidation in later stages." Thus, whether following a merger or acquisition, or internal server consolidation, critical applications and day-to-day operations are uninterrupted while a customer redesigns the future infrastructure and architecture.

Amit Dave, server consolidation segment leader for IBM, based in Rochester, points to a further advantage of LPAR. "It allows you to partition workloads, interactive or batch, for example. You buy the appropriate interactive CPW [Commercial Processing Workload] feature and allocate it by partition on a single server. You don't have to be concerned with buying a systems model or a server model. You upgrade to one of the new 7XX Series and allocate the percentage of interactive CPW depending on the workload that needs it."

He adds that LPAR permits a partition to be dedicated to emerging applications, such as business intelligence, without the purchase of a separate machine for testing and development. "It's a way of getting into it without effecting primary users or daily operations," Dave says.

INS solves the problem of proliferating Windows NT servers. Up to 16 INS servers can be integrated in a single AS/400, all running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, as well as Microsoft BackOffice. "Most AS/400 customers who use NT in their environment are using it for file and print serving," Scharf says. "The customer can run NT file and print server capability on the INS and use the same level of tools and functions that they use with everything else on the AS/400."

Thus, Windows NT server costs are reduced, and manageability and availability are increased. Likewise, Domino, the server portion of Lotus Notes running in a single partition on an AS/400, reduces the number of PC or Unix servers used for Domino serving.

For example, Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass., is in the process of migrating from 20 Vines mail servers to Lotus Notes served by a single AS/400 Model S30, running V4R2 with native Domino. When the year-long project is complete in August, 1999, Notes will be available to 6,500 students and faculty.

"In the past, if one server became unavailable, all of a sudden 300 students were without email," says Rob McDonagh, systems engineer. "Converting to Notes mail, we estimated it would take about 12 NT servers to carry the load we expected. From a systems point of view, we weren't thrilled by the thought of that many servers doing what one AS/400 could do."

The benefits are already obvious to McDonagh. "We saved some money because the AS/400 was cheaper than a dozen NT servers would have been," he says. "But more important are the administrative savings. I am the only Notes administrator, but if I had to maintain 12 servers I wouldn't feel comfortable without at least one more full-time employee."

Are there circumstances under which server consolidation might not be beneficial? The experts can come up with few, if any.

IBM's Dave points out, however, that in the case of international consolidation, networking may pose a problem. "We've been spoiled," he says. "In emerging markets, the telecommunications network may not be up to the standards we're used to. If the network doesn't perform, or is too expensive, it can make more sense to remain decentralized and keep remote servers where they are. In most parts of the world that's not an issue. But in some parts of Latin America, for instance, or Asia-Pacific, telecommunications costs can be the deciding factor."

Aberdeen's Kernochan cautions against overestimating the areas where server consolidation can cure all an organization's IS ills. "The interesting thing about server consolidation is that it's not necessarily intuitive," he says. "The fact is, IS has been keeping an eye on costs for some time. There are a lot of people who are savvy enough to design in the right server for the right job from the start. It can be pretty close to optimal, and the cost of doing the upgrade to consolidate may not be worth the candle."

Scharf agrees that sweeping generalizations are deceptive, and that every case should be considered by itself. "We try to go through a comprehensive process up front with a customer to determine if it makes sense. For example, does he have the skills to do it in-house, or the funds to hire outside skills, if he doesn't? In the end, it boils down to the effect on costs and the improvement in business processes for the individual company."