Hewlett-Packard's decision to halt support for its Tru64 Unix OS on Alpha servers five years ago alarmed one of its most loyal customers so much that the company decided in quick order to switch, not to another Unix server but to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. And it's not looking back.
For more than a decade, Lichtenstein-based Hilti Corp., a $4.4 billion global construction tooling and services company, depended on Unix servers for the SAP business applications running the heart of its operations, which sell directly to construction sites worldwide. The customer records of the 68-year-old, 20,000-employee, company are so voluminous that its SAP customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications rank in SAP's top 10 largest worldwide, according to Michael Hagmann, Hilti's head of enterprise server technology. In addition to SAP's CRM and ERP applications, Hilti also runs SAP's Business Suite and its NetWeaver platform.
To run such a large customer-centric IT system like Hilti's -- especially with an IT staff of only seven -- factors such as trouble-free and simple operation are key, Hagmann said. Hilti's former Unix system was reliable, handled clusters particularly well and had a shared root system that enabled the staff to install and update all five systems (two data centers, a disaster recovery site and two development centers) with applications and patches simultaneously. To make operations even easier, Hilti standardized its hardware.
Starting from scratch on RHEL
HP's 2004 decision to phase out Tru64 support left Hilti feeling betrayed.
"We lost all our know-how and had to begin from scratch," Hagmann said.
With only three months to select a new platform, Hilti decided in 2006 to switch to Linux because it wanted "an environment for the future" and concluded that Intel would continue to develop more powerful x86 chips that would keep pace with Hilti's expanding server requirements, he said. Hilti's database itself is currently 7 TB and growing 1.5 TB per year.
"We felt that Linux would grow along with us, giving us the ability to expand, and we would be able to use any software we wanted because everything [applications] is available on Linux," Hagmann said.
Another factor in Linux's favor was the lack of vendor lock-in, he said. Even if Hilti's Linux vendor of choice went out of business, other Linux vendors are available so Hilti could switch from one to another with the same hardware and technical knowledge, he said. And Linux's use of standard hardware meant that the same box brands would run open source server applications and Windows' office applications, he said. During the evaluation process, Hilti also considered the IBM PowerChip running both AIX and Linux but ultimately rejected that option in favor of a 100% Linux solution
RHEL vs. Novell SUSE
Once the company made the decision to go with Linux, selecting Red Hat versus Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise was relatively simple. Red Hat has the "most complete" technology, with SAP certification, the Global File System, the Red Hat cluster suite and the ability to port Hilti's shared root system from Unix, all with one support from one OS vendor, Hagmann said. Another plus of Red Hat was that Atix, Hilti's German systems engineering company, had little experience with SUSE, he added. For virtualization, Hilti went with VMware virtualization.
Hilti's migration to 185 HP ProLiant servers running RHEL began with the less critical applications in the winter of 2006, followed by SAP CRM a year later and ERP in the spring of 2009. Despite advance testing and memory validation, the migration created a lot of issues with operations and the network stack, probably because of the unusually large volume of transactions, Hagmann said. The ERP system, for example, was processing up to 80,000 inputs/outputs per second and up to 1 million direct customer sales per hour, Hagmann said.
"This install was a big deal for Red Hat," Hagmann said. "I don't think they have such large installs with such heavy loads,. and they could not have anticipated the problems caused by our massive volumes."
Because it lacked in-house Linux expertise, Hilti worked with Red Hat under an "open ticket," using 10 test servers, each with 32 GB of RAM and a lot of memory to test every release.
Ultimately, after Hilti discovered that it could pay for advanced support and get a dedicated Red Hat technical account manager, the migration process improved. Hilti didn't have to explain its unique environment on each support call, Hagmann said.
Two and a half years later, the migration of its SAP systems is complete, with only the transition of a few legacy systems remaining. These systems will move to Red Hat by 2012, he said.
"Reliability has been good; we've had no major outages," Hagmann said. "With up to 1 million sales an hour, even a half-hour loss makes managers very nervous. But the outages have been only minor."
The switch from Unix to RHEL Linux has paid off in reduced acquisition costs and energy consumption, reduced rack space and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, Hilti is saving up to 50% on software licensing and hardware costs alone. Its largest HP servers, the DL 785 G5 powered by AMD Opteron 8356, have twice as much memory, perform batch processing 50% faster, consume 80% less power (excluding cooling), have eight times the CPU and are less than 10% the total cost of ownership of HP's GS1280 that previously ran SAP's ERP system. And it uses less rack space.
Bottom line: IT is happy with Red Hat from a technical standpoint and management is happy because it sees the cost savings with no perceptible impact on operations from the new Linux OS, he said.
Although the savings vary by model and are difficult to quantify collectively, they are substantial enough to motivate Unix vendors to try very hard to win back Hilti as a customer, Hagmann said. But the vendors' efforts have boomeranged, motivating Hagmann to answer as many reference calls and do as many interviews as possible on its Linux conversion.
"Linux in an enterprise environment just works," he said.
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