City of Calgary migrates to Linux

A downward pressure on IT budgets is the main reason why the City of Calgary has moved from a Unix-based infrastructure to a Linux environment.

Dan Ryan, the city’s manager of infrastructure and desktop management, said that back in the fall of 2002, the city had about 140 Unix servers, with 60 per cent of them running Solaris, 25 per cent running HP’s Tru64 Unix and the rest running other operating systems. Maintaining those Unix servers cost more than $600,00 a year, while the city’s 220 Windows servers had a yearly cost $100,000 to run.

“We had to find ways to cut costs and we were looking under every rock,” Ryan said. “Unix was so expensive because everything was proprietary – both the hardware and the software. We had heard lots of reasons why we should hang onto Unix servers, things like ‘They’re for mission critical applications’… But really what made sense four or five years ago had to be challenged.”

Most of the Windows servers were about five years old, but the Unix environment was even more antiquated. “Many Unix servers were seven years old and there were a couple that were 10 years old. The reason for that was that (they) originally cost $150,000 to $170,000. They had come down in price but were still around $80,000,” Ryan said, adding that the city did not have the money to upgrade to another expensive environment.

Ryan and his team did some research, and came across Linux. “Back then, we could barely spell Linux,” he said. “We had heard of it but hadn’t done any work on it…(so) we challenged our database and Unix team to come back with business case for Linux.” The research team contacted some of the city’s vendor partners, including HP, and prepared a proof of concept for Ryan.

According to Ian Lofthouse, the city’s team leader for the Unix systems administration group, Red Hat Advanced Server 2.1 was the best choice because of the support both HP and Oracle, two of the city’s main vendors, were offering for the platform.

The City of Calgary did three pilots; the first one was done with the help of HP, and the next two the city’s IT staff did on their own. The pilots costs about $150,000, and the bulk of that was cost of the Intel servers, Ryan said. That expense was not considered risky, he added, because “if the pilots proved to be unsuccessful, we could still reallocate those servers into our existing environment.”

The pilots were about one thing: cost containment. “We were praying that it would be a break-even proposition. Even if it was close, we would consider Linux,” Ryan said. But the IT team started noticing some performance gains as well. In the first quarter of 2003, they tested the city’s property tax installment payment plan application, which normally processed 175,000 records in 73 minutes using an eight-processor CPU running Unix. With Linux on a two-processor Intel CPU, it ran in 31 minutes. “That was the first heads-up to us that we were dealing with something pretty special,” Ryan said.

Toward the end of March 2003 the city did its annual property tax run, which involved calculating 329,000 tax records. In the Unix environment “we used to crank that thing and it dimmed the lights at City Hall,” Ryan said, adding that the eight-processor CPU with Unix did the job in 60 hours. But on a two-processor, $12,000 CPU running Linux, the calculations took about 13 hours. “At that point…we met with the architecture manager and decided on the spot that…Linux was here for keeps.”

The city had been considering a request for proposal (RFP) in the marketplace to update its Windows servers, but by factoring in that Linux was going to be a big part of its environment, it increased the size of its RFP to replace the Unix servers with Intel boxes as well. HP won the RFP and systems integrator Compugen was contracted to do the work. Intending to keep the new servers for five years, the city also got a five-year maintenance contract. “I don’t worry about $100,000 operating costs anymore, or spending $600,000 in maintenance. As we put in the new servers, the costs fall off,” said Ryan, adding that the grand total in savings is about 75 per cent.

At this point the city is in the process of migrating one of its applications to the Linux environment every seven to 10 days. The latest one to be moved is its data warehouse application, which used to run in six hours under a six-processor CPU and now runs in 30 minutes with a four-processor box. “Oracle database imports and exports are also six times faster,” Ryan said. The city also plans to migrate from its Oracle 8i database for Unix to 9i for Linux.

The “bulls eye for this year,” he said, is the PeopleSoft migration, which is planned for the fourth quarter. For smaller applications, it takes about 10 to 15 hours of migration work, and a large application takes about 100 hours of effort.

Lofthouse said managing the Red Hat system is “pretty similar” to managing Unix. “The skill change was minor; we had a partner come in to teach an expert level course about the difference between managing Linux and traditional Unix, but the enthusiasm of the team provided more than enough motivation.”

Charles Taylor, supervisor, data infrastructure management for the city, added that from a database administration perspective, the move has been “pretty transparent. There is not much difference and we were able to port over our skills.”

Taylor said that before IT managers tackle a migration to Linux, it’s important to get real management buy-in, which was easy in the city’s case because of the motivation to reduce costs. Upper management should also do its homework on the budget, hardware compatibility and product certification side. Don’t tackle the migration on your own unless you have experienced Unix and database administration staff, he advised; otherwise, hire outside expertise.

Glenn Bontje, HP Canada’s business development manager for Linux, said HP is seeing significant interest in Linux for new initiatives, although the number of customers doing major migrations off mainframes or Sun environments is somewhat smaller.

If the customer has a large investment in infrastructure that is mostly Unix-driven, and is looking at replacing older RISC boxes, Linux on Intel CPUS is a cost-effective solution, but the ultimate decision is dependent on existing applications, training and the extent of implementation, he said. “There is no magic solution out there, no single answer to all problems.”

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