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Former Windows shop recalls path to Oracle Unbreakable Linux

When Acuity Brands first began running Oracle on Linux, the operating system was unproven. Today the company is a firm believer in the platform.

Pat Quinn, the vice president of IT at lighting manufacturer Acuity Brands Inc., is quick to admit the irony. Nine years ago, he opted to go with an enterprise resource planning system from Oracle Corp. primarily because of Windows. "At that time, Oracle was one of the few vendors that could run on Windows, and we had a real Windows bias," Quinn said. Today, although Acuity Brands still considers itself a Windows shop -- many of the company's applications are developed in .NET and run on Windows -- its Oracle enterprise systems run on Linux.

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So why did a self-described Windows zealot migrate the enterprise applications of a $2 billion manufacturing company to Linux? The decision, Quinn recalled, was borne of necessity and was, therefore, relatively simple. In 2002, when Acuity Brands wanted to roll out its Oracle financial systems to a manufacturing facility in Vermilion, Ohio, its Windows operating system couldn't handle the load. "We had three nodes and 150 users, and we needed 300 connections [to the Oracle database], said Jim Draughn, the director of enterprise engineering. "We had 32-bit x86 boxes with 3 Gigs of memory, and Windows just couldn't keep up with our needs."

Specifically, Windows' reliance on threading -- in which memory is allocated for the system and as each subsequent user signs on -- would tap out memory before all users could sign on to the system. "Linux is processed based," Draughn said. "Even with 32-bit, we would not run into memory problems with Linux because memory would be [spun] off to a different processor as users logged on."

At the manufacturing plant, Quinn had to halt the rollout of the Oracle system until an alternative could be found.

From Windows to Linux
In 2002, Acuity Brands had two options for its Oracle systems: Run them on Linux on 32-bit architecture or use a proprietary Unix system on a RISC-based box. The decision was relatively easy: The Unix option cost at least $500,000 more than Linux, and the company had little in-house experience with Unix. And at the time, Oracle indicated its intention to migrate development to Linux; so when Oracle and Dell suggested that Acuity Brands migrate to Linux, Quinn was receptive to the idea.

There was a significant wrinkle, however: There wasn't an enterprise Linux distribution that ran Oracle's various financial and manufacturing enterprise systems, which now are bundled under the e-business umbrella.

But Quinn was unfazed by the prospect of being among the Linux pioneers. "We are an IT-savvy company," he said. "I was confident we'd make it work." To do so, Acuity Brands worked closely with Oracle, Dell Inc.. and Red Hat Inc. Oracle ported its code to Linux, and Acuity spent about six months to get the systems stable on Linux. "Generally, we were having problems with memory," recalled Draughn. "And the business suite wasn't Linux-ready or able at first to work on a cluster."

Among the sporadic problems that needed fixing: A user would make a transaction on one node, and nothing would be returned. Essentially, the transaction would be routed incorrectly, ending up on a different node from the one through which the transaction was made.

After about six months, many of the stability issues had been ironed out, and in May 2002, Oracle financials were rolled out to the Vermilion facility. As far as Quinn knows, Acuity Brands was the first company to run Oracle's e-business applications on Linux in production. "At least that's what the plaque we have says," he quipped. The following September, Red Hat released its first version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, increasing stability further.

Linux proves its mettle
In October 2007, Acuity Brands switched from Red Hat to Oracle Unbreakable Linux. According to Quinn, the primary reason for the move was support. "We now have to make one call -- to Oracle," he said. What's more, Acuity Brands has worked closely with the Oracle developers who work on Linux code.

Today, Acuity Brands runs Linux on 18 four-socket servers from Dell, including six nodes that run Oracle's 11.510 e-business applications and Oracle 10g Release 2 database. There are more than2,000 users of the Oracle systems and 4,000 connections, and Quinn says the performance and stability are more than up to snuff. On a daily basis, Draughn estimates that the Oracle systems running Linux handle 50,000 to 60,000 transactions.

Quinn said that the move to Linux in 2002 was something of a leap of faith. "In retrospect, if we were running mission-critical systems back then, we would have plunked down $500,000 for Unix," he said. As it turned out, the Vermilion facility could run on legacy systems while Acuity Brands worked out the kinks in Linux.

And now Linux is robust enough for those considering the move. "Linux is really a stable platform now," he said. "I hear from a lot of people who are considering Linux either as a cost-saving move or when they are about to go through a significant hardware upgrade," he said. "I tell them going to Linux is no big deal."


Let us know what you think about the story; email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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