Imaging firm screens iSeries

Christie Digital Systems Inc. specializes in turning tiny pictures into huge, cinematic events. But when it came to updating its server infrastructure, the company went in the other direction, making a large IT investment into a small hit in the pocketbook.

Christie Digital is headquartered in Kitchener, Ont., where it builds digital movie projectors, 3D projectors and other devices designed to make virtual experiences as real as possible.

The company experienced the full brunt of IT reality, however, when it started researching a new server infrastructure to support a new PeopleSoft Inc. enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform.

Christie had an ERP system in place, but it was old, and it had been customized beyond recognition, according to Gary James, the firm’s IT manager. Rather than retro-engineer the existing platform, Christie’s crew decided to replace it with the PeopleSoft product.

Christie needed servers to support the ERP system. James says his company was inclined to purchase six boxes running Intel Corp. processors and a Microsoft Corp. operating system. “We have been an Intel shop all along. Our first feeling was we would go Intel. That was our preference, and we told them that up front.”

“Them,” in this case, included representatives of IBM Corp., who were perhaps somewhat eager to see Christie change its mind and opt for Big Blue’s iSeries server instead of Intel-based products. So eager, in fact, that Christie managed to play the hard-to-get card and win a discounted price for the iSeries — a price low enough to make James and his team reconsider their Intel preference.

But it wasn’t just the cost that swayed Christie, and led the firm to ultimately install the IBM device. James says upkeep and support costs also pulled his company in IBM’s direction.

James says it would have been more difficult to maintain the multiple Intel boxes compared to the single iSeries that his company eventually deployed.

In the Intel scenario, “should one piece of equipment fail, there would be manual intervention” to restore the device, James says. “It wasn’t automatic reliability.” He explains that the iSeries has redundancy built in. For instance, should one of the iSeries’ processors fail, the box would automatically balance the workload among the remaining, operating processors.

The ongoing costs of the Intel platform also concerned James. “With an Intel solution, we were looking at a three-year maintenance package. After that, maintenance fees rise considerably.”

James also points out that IBM’s iSeries is a less popular target for network intruders. Virus writers, for example, tend to keep Windows operating systems and applications in mind when they pen their malware. The iSeries runs an IBM-built operating system, i5/OS, which, by virtue of its relative obscurity beside Windows, is safer from digital bugs.

But the IBM operating system’s obscurity also introduces a level of risk in the iSeries environment that might not exist in the Windows world. For one thing, it took Christie’s IT pros a bit of time to get used to the i5/OS interface, James says, indicating that a certain amount of training might be required for companies to successfully operate the iSeries. “There are some character type commands, like in a Unix world, as well as graphical. But the person I’m training on this says once you get used to it, it is pretty powerful and informative. It’s just a matter of learning it.”

Christie is also courting the single-point-of-failure demon with the iSeries, a sole device that, should it fail, would leave the company minus one very important ERP system. James says the benefits outweigh the risks, however.

“With the iSeries we have everything running on that one box. Yes, if that box fails we’ll have some trouble, but we didn’t have to worry about separate pieces failing, having to scramble to reconfigure things to keep it running.”

According to Barry Pow, IBM Canada’s senior product manager in Markham, Ont., the iSeries central configuration — one box, multiple tasks — is both a selling feature and a hurdle for Big Blue before some potential customers.

“One thing is people like to have control of their own pieces of the pie. Some of them don’t want to feel as if you’re taking that away from them. If you have this central repository of data, does that mean I don’t have the freedom I had before?”

At Christie, some of the challenges that might crop up with the iSeries installation are yet to be met. Only time will tell if the firm’s decision to purchase the IBM device instead of the Intel boxes was the right one.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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