Tech Ed: Powerco rips and replaces Oracle, server fleet

Infrastructure upgrade sees SQL Server replace Oracle

Eighteen months ago New Zealand’s second-largest power company, Powerco, went though an almost complete ICT infrastructure upgrade. It has seen Oracle almost totally eliminated from the business in favour of Microsoft’s SQL Server, virtualisation introduced, old kit replaced with HP blade servers and the consolidation of 47 Citrix servers down almost to half that number.

IS infrastructure manager Huw Griffiths says there are still pockets of Oracle in place, but only because the applications running on top of them, for tracking outages, defects and line maintenance, do not support SQL Server.

The final major application to be transferred, Powerco’s geographic information system, shifts to SQL server this week.

Griffiths, who will present on the project today at a voice of the customer sessions at Microsoft's Tech Ed conference in Auckland today, says total savings from the consolidation amount to $390,000 a year.

The shift to SQL server is just part of that, he says, though that move allowed the company to decommission servers on a support contract with Datacom, moving that support in-house and onto SQL. In all, the project delivered lower licensing costs, lower support costs and required fewer racks.

Griffiths says a shift to open source databases was not considered because Powerco was running both Oracle and Microsoft’s SQL. The aim was to standardise and consolidate, so it was an “either/or” decision, he says.

He was also confident of his organisation’s ability to manage SQL Server internally and for it to perform in clusters, and to perform failover and other vital functions.

A major part of the project was to consolidate the existing Microsoft SQL environment, which had proliferated. No new database administrators were required and a “knowledge transfer” operation is underway for staff that need it.

Among the applications moved onto SQL Server are the JD Edwards financial system, helpdesk system and now the GIS system.

The other parts of the consolidation included virtualisation and consolidation of the Citrix server farm.

“We had 140 servers and the question was how we dealt to that,” says Griffiths. “We were scratching the surface with VMware, but after Ernst & Young did a review we decided not to virtualise our Citrix farm. They said it would be good for at least the next 12 to 18 months and that it was not worth changing.”

Citrix is now up for review again and a business case will be presented to the board within the next few weeks. “We’ll probably carry on with it because of the applications,” Griffiths says. “It is quite a big investment.”

Powerco addressed the situation on three levels. Firstly, it looked to replace the legacy hardware with HP blade technology.

“Switching to HP blade technology certainly saved us a considerable amount of space and we knew that blade technology would result in a dramatic reduction in energy consumption, a problem that is always top-of-mind when you are dealing with physical servers,” Griffiths says.

The second step involved virtualising a lot of the infrastructure using VMware. “Given that we have more than 700 contractors using a variety of applications, virtualising the infrastructure was always on the agenda. However, we did not want to virtualise our whole infrastructure as 47 of our servers were running Citrix.

Finally, Powerco faced the challenge of making the hardware it had supporting the Citrix applications more efficient, while still maintaining the same services.

Powerco turned to AppSense to see how AppSense Performance Manager could achieve maximum server consolidation.

“The blades and VMware implementation went smoothly, but we knew our 47 Citrix servers were still not running at full capacity. We spoke to AppSense about how we could squeeze more users on to servers, without the need to virtualise or compromise business critical applications.

AppSense Performance Manager enabled a 40 percent increase in server capacity by reducing the number of resources required to run desktops and applications within the datacentre. Powerco was able to identify resource-intensive applications and limit the resource available to them, ensuring enough capacity for every user on the server.

“AppSense helped us reduce our 47 Citrix servers down to 25. Not only do we have more users than ever on our existing hardware, but we have not had to compromise or restrict any of the Citrix applications. Most importantly, we did not have to virtualise our infrastructure to achieve this, which was a key aim for us,” Griffiths says.

Powerco hired Auckland-based server specialist MPA to install AppSense. Griffiths says much of the support and maintenance work was done via telephone contact with Powerco’s IT staff. The company has a team of 45 IT specialists.

The project cost around $800,000. This included replacing 95 percent of the servers that were out of warranty. Powerco also chose a small range of HP blades because they took less space within cabinets. The company pays TelstraClear by the rack for the hosting service.

“We now get 16 servers in the same space as we did five previously,” Griffith says.

The only potential problem was with the GIS system delivered over Citrix.

“It is a known problem with GIS systems, so we had to exclude them because AppSense was trying to manage them and causing problems,” he says.

Microsoft NZ’s SQL Server product manager, Darryl Burling, says the company was not directly involved in the project, but was alerted to it by a partner.

He says SQL Server delivers “great value” out of the box, with management, integration and business intelligence tools and other extras included that he suggests users of rival products, whether high-end or open source, would have to source separately.

Burling says SQL Server has a lot of local momentum and several similar projects are in the pipeline. Some organisations already have SQL Server expertise, so they can save costs on specialist skills, as Powerco did.

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