The Wrong Choice: Windows flops in online retail project

A Cleveland-based service provider that caters to retailers has opted to use Linux for its new development platform, slamming its Windows shut.

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Historically, the retail industry has tallied its take largely on applications running on Windows. Cleveland-based Datavantage Corp., a provider of tools and technology services for retailers, had always fallen in line, running its service offerings and internal IT on Windows.

Nowadays, however, more and more Java-based retail apps are being deployed on Linux. So, when Datavantage had to choose a platform for its new Stored Value gift card transaction-processing solution, Windows wasn't the only option. In fact, project manager Ian Amit quickly discovered that Windows was the wrong choice.

Stored Value, launched for the 2003 holiday season, marked a new direction for Datavantage, a subsidiary of Micros Systems Inc. Traditionally, the company has provided solutions for point-of-sale operations, sales and productivity management, loss prevention, sales auditing and customer relationship management.

We wanted to be able to modify any parameter on the OS level. You just can't do that with Windows.
Ian Amit
Project managerDatavantage

"Online transaction processing over the Internet was a new area for us," Amit said. It's a new option for retailers, too, he said, being the first true multi-channel, multifunctional transaction-processing platform for gift cards, loyalty programs and other promotional activities.

Windows one of many platforms in-house

Datavantage has been a Windows shop for years. The company uses Windows Server 2003 for managing internal systems and running the development and support environments for Datavantage's clients. Generally, Datavantage's IT environment encompasses support infrastructures for its products, which range from OS/2 servers for legacy-application support (mainly in the datacomm department) to Windows for most of its newer applications and support services. Some Linux has gotten into the mix, however, in firewalls and other areas. For example, Knoppix Linux is used as a rescue platform for recovering data.

In heading down a new path with Stored Value, Datavantage's management decided to keep its platform options open. Amit's three-person project team was granted "complete freedom to define and create the appropriate infrastructure," he said. Besides having that freedom, Amit notes, "we had the good fortune of being able to plan everything way in advance."

That freedom and planning time was desperately needed, as the goals for Stored Value were and are lofty. First, Amit's team had to build a platform that could accommodate a transaction increase of 150% to 200% in the first year. The back-end infrastructure has to be up 24/7. Round-trip transaction times had to be less than two seconds.

To be affordable for customers, Stored Value had to be relatively inexpensive to deploy, maintain and manage. Then there was the little matter of implementing wide-area disaster recovery between Datavantage's primary data center, located in Maryland, and the backup site in Ohio.

To meet these goals, Datavantage needed to build a new back-end infrastructure that meshed well with its database choice, Oracle. The project team wanted a shared Oracle home for improved cluster management and simplified scale-out, plus a general-purpose cluster file system for both Oracle data files and non-Oracle files. Quick and easy addition of nodes was another requirement.

Unix is no bargain

Amit didn't need an evaluation to know that Unix would not satisfy the company's need for a low-cost deployment. Datavantage's legacy Unix infrastructure was proof enough, he said. So his team pitted the two leading commodity server platforms -- Linux and Windows -- against each other in several trials. They found that Linux outperformed Windows in scalability and performance.

Linux's flexibility also won favor. Having complete control over the underlying OS is Linux's key strength. "We wanted to be able to modify any parameter on the OS level," Amit said. "You just can't do that with Windows."

Oracle's support and enthusiasm for Linux also played against Windows. In addition, the large variety of open source tools already available for Linux was a plus. Already, Datavantage uses OpenNMS for network monitoring, as well as Snort and Nessus for security. Such open source solutions offer greater reliability and flexibility than "we can get on Windows, and for much less capital expense," Amit said.

Platform in hand, Amit's team then evaluated four Linux-based cluster file system (CFS) solutions that were said to support Oracle 9i Real Application Clusters (RAC) and general-purpose file-based applications.

One product was ruled out because it contained a single point of failure; its other drawbacks included installation difficulty and poor customer support. Another could not support a shared Oracle home. A third open source software option looked promising, but intense testing showed that it wasn't mature enough to handle high-volume transaction processing. Contestant No. 4, the PolyServe Matrix Server shared data software, demonstrated none of these weaknesses and won the day. "It worked well with Oracle databases, was simple to install and scaled easily," Amit said.

New data center wears Red Hat

Key decisions made, the team created a new data center built for toughness and longevity. Red Hat Enterprise Linux runs on Hewlett-Packard ProLiant servers. Oracle's Application Server, database and RAC work with PolyServe's shared data clustering solutions. HP's DLT Autoloaders are used for local backups. Networking is based on Cisco devices, including Catalyst switches, CSS Load Balancers, and PIX firewalls and VPN. An EMC Clariion SAN handles storage.

With this design in hand, Amit's team set up an inexpensive, fully functional, proof-of-concept deployment. They used extremely cheap components that ran on Dell PCs and an eight-port hub. Still in use today, the test system helped and helps the team evaluate features and architectural changes.

"We have full confidence that anything that we have working on the test environment can be easily deployed in our production environment," Amit said.

The well-prepared team sailed through the production system's deployment, getting Matrix Server running in hours "instead of weeks," Amit said. During the deployment, HP offered a pleasant surprise: full SNMP trap support for every piece of hardware in the data center. "We can discover a failed (redundant) chassis fan faster than we could ever imagine using the tools -- like OpenNMS -- that we have deployed for monitoring," Amit said.

A couple of network glitches were only a minor irritation. "Having in Matrix Server a fully redundant, highly available platform made all the problems seem negligible," Amit said. "We were able to focus on solving every issue that came up without the pressure of working on a single component because every part of the platform had an HA configuration."

The project team met Datavantage's goals for performance, availability and deployment costs. The total investment for the new, shared-data, clustered infrastructure -- including all hardware and software for both the Maryland and Ohio data centers -- was $250,000. Compare that, said Amit, to the million-dollar price (in yesterday's dollars) of the previous Unix-based infrastructure. The Linux-Oracle-PolyServe system has already achieved three times the performance of the Unix architecture. Best of all, the Stored Value financial transaction processing platform is delivering the critical 24/7 system uptime to customers.

Windows will remain part of Datavantage's internal IT infrastructure and customer solutions for the foreseeable future, Amit said. Even so, the Datavantage IT team is running evaluations of its other data center services on Red Hat Linux.

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