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Oracle shop ditches Unix for Linux on the mainframe

The province of Quebec is consolidating hundreds of Oracle database instances to Linux on a mainframe running z/VM, a move that will simplify database management and save it millions.

TAMPA, Fla. -- The IT department for the Canadian province of Quebec is consolidating hundreds of Oracle databases -- spread across hundreds of midrange servers -- onto a new mainframe running Linux on top of z/VM.

With this consolidation, the government agency plans to recoup the cost of the new mainframe within three years and eventually save millions on hardware and software costs. But the move is being done for more than just financial reasons: It also allows them to have one platform for its Oracle databases, making it easier to manage their Oracle databases as they grow.

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"On the midrange servers, there were some problems," said IT director Marc Plamondon. "We have about a 100-server increase per year on average, and we have many operating systems -- AIX, Solaris -- so it's a good thing to standardize on Linux, because it's going to be used more, not only on the z/VM platform, but everywhere."

Moving Linux to mainframe takes time

The project started way back in 2003 when IT officials from the Quebec province sat down at a presentation given by IBM mainframers. They were already a mainframe shop, with five z/890s, one z/800 and one S/390 G5. But they also had more than 400 Unix servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. and were looking for ways to whittle that number down. The presentation offered a possible solution: Linux on z/VM.

It wasn't until the fall of 2005 that the agency actually bought a mainframe -- a z9 Enterprise Class (EC) -- to start the first phase of the project. In those two years preceding the purchase, proponents had to prove that the switch would improve performance and save money. They did that by crafting a detailed business case for the board of directors.

"This project was highly political, inside and outside of government, so we only had one chance to do it," said Jocelyn Hamel, a systems integration project advisor for IBM Canada.

Oracle consolidation saves on licensing costs

In the end, the agency set up its 3,000 MIPS z9 EC with five Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL) specialty processors to handle the Linux workloads and configured it with five logical partitions (LPARs): one each for Oracle, WebSphere Application Server, service and testing, and others running both Tivoli Access Manager and LDAP . It then created a stripped down rock-solid version of SUSE Linux to serve as the template for all the guests running on z/VM v5.2.

"We harden an image, remove services and take out login accounts," said David Kreuter, president of Ontario-based VM Resources Ltd., which consulted on the project. "We've hardened our Linux servers and then we clone them, so we always know what our penguins are doing. Gee, it's almost like Linux isn't any fun."

By 2006, the agency had consolidated 165 Oracle instances onto 125 Linux virtual machines and anticipated growth of more than 100 new instances per year for the next few years. Though the cost of running Oracle on the mainframe hardware is about the same as running on lots of Unix server hardware, the agency estimated that it saved $800,000 in licensing costs in the first year alone. Licenses are based on the number of processors used, so the agency saved money by being able to host several Oracle instances on each IFL specialty processor.

Hamel also said management of Oracle databases is greatly improved. It can install a Linux server in about 30 minutes. Before, getting a new Unix server to run a database would take between one week and three months (if it needed a request for proposal). It can also install an Oracle DB instance in 30 minutes; with Sun's Unix systems, Hamel said it took 10-to-14 hours.

Linux on mainframe no easy task

Still, it was no cakewalk moving to Linux on z. More than anything, proponents of the project had to convince everyone else inside and outside of IT that the change was worth it. They conducted more than 200 person days of training to mainframe systems programmers, Unix administrators, security officers, network administrators and even executives.

They then had to ensure that the system and Oracle applications were secure by implementing RACF protection, monitoring changes with software from Tripwire Inc. and providing isolation of each of the agency's 125 government clients, while at the same time allowing them to share resources by using mainframe networking technologies like Open Systems Adapters (OSA) and virtual switches (VSwitch).

But with the infrastructure and personnel in place, the agency isn't limiting its z/VM consolidation to Oracle databases. At the end of April, it plans to start a project to move WebSphere Application Servers over to Linux on z/VM, followed by further consolidations of SUSE Linux software, Lotus Domino servers and more.

"It moves slowly because we have to do some convincing of people," Plamondon said. "We gave out much more information to technical personnel than we thought we were going to do. You have to have the managerial approval and build a good business case that proves that this isn't going to be a hole that the company throws money into. We said that it could not be worse; it could only be better."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer, and check out the Blog.

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