Alberta Work Comp Board builds 64-bit Linux, DB2 data warehouse

The Workers Compensation Board of Alberta built its first data warehouse about five years ago but found this legacy system couldn’t process the amount data requests quickly enough.

That’s why the organization moved to Linux about two years ago. Last year the WCB upgraded to IBM Corp.’s DB2 database running on a 64-bit Dell 3250 Intel Corp. Itanium 2 server with Red Hat Inc. Linux as its operating system. The WCB beefed up the fully configured Dell 3250 server with 16GB of memory. Right now, the WCB is in the middle of its 2004 upgrade to Red Hat Enterprise 3.

“We were floored by the performance this machine has given us. The Xeon 32-bit environment was impressive in itself, but the Itanium is another order of magnitude increase in performance and throughput,” said Larry Collins, IT Manager at the WCB in Edmonton. “Itanium is very spotty in where it fits, but it is a true fit for us, for what we’re doing. We wanted to run in a 64-bit mode in a cost-effective mid-range platform.”

Collins said the WCB can now run at least 24 concurrent queries before performance starts to degrade. The WCB tracks information such as insurance claims and accident data about workers in Alberta. But only five years ago, WCB was running its data warehouse on an OS 390 mainframe environment. “We had a very solid mainframe infrastructure. Technically it was a great platform to run it,” Collins said. “Of course, as with most data warehouses, as people start to us it, it becomes more and more popular and people. It gets way more data in there, which fuels more and more queries, so the growth started taking off in leaps in bounds.”

Collins said the WCB was happy with the mainframe infrastructure because it gave them good functionality as far as developing queries and testing all the management tools for the mainframe DB2 environment. But just about three years ago he said it was time for the WCB to closely examine its infrastructure to determine if it could more efficient with the way it does business.

The WCB determined a lot of its cycles on its mainframe were being used for hours to run database warehouse queries and so that’s when it decided to investigate a more efficient, cost-effective way to offload this workload, he said.

So two years ago, the WCB removed the data warehouse but left all its online transaction processing (OLTP) on the mainframe, Collins said.

“OLTP is the buzzword for normal business transactions. People who file claims, we go through the transaction process to move those claims along,” he said. “In a warehouse environment you extract all the detailed information in your OLTP environment, summarize that data and then store it in the data warehouse.”

As soon as the WCB began its investigation into an alternative platform for its database, Collins said the organization immediately chose to stick with IBM’s DB2 database because the version that runs on Linux looks very similar to the one that runs on the mainframe, Collins said.

Additionally, because the WCB’s personnel already had DB2 skills, it saved them money in training costs.

“Plus the integration we can do with DB2 on the mainframe and any other platform is pretty tight,” he explained. This means, WCB could tie things like its security policy in with both the DB2 on the mainframe and the DB2 on Linux, he added.

After the database was chosen, the WCB looked in-house at its skills to determine the best platform. “In our environment we had folks who had a Unix background, the mainframe has some Unix components to it, so those skills were there,” he said. Additionally, the WCB looked to some studies from Gartner Inc. to what the forecasts were for Linux and after conducting some research, the WCB decided the open source operating system would be a perfect fit for its needs based on the in-house skills and the cost of deploying a platform new to the organization.

So the WCB brought Linux in for a test drive and were summarily impressed. “Once we fired it up and once we got DB2 running on there, we were pretty impressed with the results we were getting on our Intel hardware,” he said. “We were able to quickly achieve similar performance to what we were getting on the mainframe.”

Initially, the WCB was running the Linux from SuSE AG, which is now owned by Novell Inc., but after it finished its testing of the operating system, and went into production — almost two years ago — the WCB decided to switch over to a Linux from Red Hat Inc., simply because of its North American presence, Collins said. “The education and certification was better at the time,” he explained.

Right about that time, Dell Corp. began to offer support with its hardware, so the WCB bought support of Dell for its Linux infrastructure but it wasn’t sufficient so it subsequently signed on with IBM, which agreed to support the whole shebang — its Dell hardware, DB2 data warehouse and Red Hat Linux.

“We were spoiled over the years in the mainframe environment,” Collins explained. “Our support structure is very tight in the mainframe world — we get good support there. Our expectations were pretty high, IBM knew that and incorporated Red Hat support in with our regular IBM support agreement.”

Additionally, the WCB outsources support of its data warehouse environment to Accenture Inc.

The WCB continues its support with both IBM and Accenture and intends to upgrade further along a Linux/Itanium/DB2 path as business needs increase.

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