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SUSE Linux on System z slashes costs, boosts uptime at Baldor Electric

When it switched to SUSE Linux on System z, Baldor Electric initially wanted better uptime and less complexity. But it managed to slash IT costs in the process.

Growth is great for the bottom line, but sometimes a burden for the IT department.

At Baldor Electric Co., a Fort Smith, Arkansas-based manufacturer of industrial electric motors, growth finally overwhelmed its four system administrators a few years back. The small team simply could not keep pace with the growing numbers of x86 servers, each with its own network feed and power line, and each requiring upgrades and patches.

Adding to the workload burden, some application servers ran on one of 20 Windows servers, while others ran on one of nine Unix servers. As a result, staff had to stay up to speed on multiple operating systems in addition to the IBM z9 mainframe running the database. And the company's x86 servers experienced frequent outages, which was particularly disruptive since they ran SAP AG, the heart of the company's business operations.

We have delivered a highly available system that delivers business value at reduced cost.

Mark Shackleford,
VP ISBaldor Electric Co.

The financial toll was significant. According to Mark Shackelford, vice president of information services, each hour that servers were down equaled a hefty cost of $100,000. And Baldor had tallied outages of five to eight days a year.

Rather than toss more staff and servers at the problem, Shackelford took a different tack altogether. In early 2005, he launched a pilot program with SUSE Linux Enterprise 8. The pilot was so successful that in early 2006 Baldor converted its entire global network to SUSE version 9. Today, Baldor runs 58 virtual servers with SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 on IBM System z with just one employee and another for backup.

"I was skeptical that SUSE would be robust enough to handle problems," Shackelford said. "But there were very few issues with implementation. And we have yet to have a production outage."

Linux on mainframe: Backing into the biggest benefits

Baldor's key motivation for change was to reduce complexity and boost availability. But the switch came with another big bonus: saving money. Ultimately, the conversion is expected to slash IT costs from 1.8 % to 1 % of company revenue, Shackelford said. Typically, manufacturers allocate 2.5% of revenue to IT, but SAP systems drive the average higher, he said. In addition, the switchover has chopped energy costs, cutting electricity consumption by 80% and helping IT become greener, he said.

The SUSE/IBM conversion was so successful that it captured management's attention. "Our CEO does not know or want to know that we are using SUSE Linux," Shackelford said. "He is interested in driving business value. We have delivered a highly available system that delivers business value at reduced cost, and that is what is important to our shareholders."

The timing of the conversion proved fortuitous; in February 2007, Baldor bought Reliance Electric, its largest competitor. The acquisition expanded Baldor from $811 million to $1.8 billion in revenue, with a commensurate increase in IT workload. But with IT operations grounded in IBM and SUSE Linux, Baldor had the foundation to handle the expansion, and did so without any increase in IT head count, Shackelford said. The IT budget has already shrunk from $14 million to $8.1 million and should reach its 1% of revenue target when Reliance's conversion is completed in 2010, he said.

More important, however, the move to IBM and SUSE Linux has provided the scalability and consistency that Baldor needed, Shackelford said. System z can handle thousands of virtual servers and cuts network latency to zero, he said. And standardizing on SUSE Linux from a mix of Windows and Unix servers was the key that Baldor needed to reduce complexity, he added.

Is Baldor's successful switch from x86 servers to a mainframe a huge trend? Not exactly. But it is becoming more common, especially when coupled with server virtualization and Linux operating systems. Charles King, principal of Pund-IT Inc. in Silicon Valley, said several industries have had success with Linux on the mainframe, including Baldor Electric in manufacturing, as well as the Boscov department store chain and an online gaming company in Brazil, he said.

IBM has focused more attention on server consolidations on the mainframe and its message seems to have reached customers, King said. If a company has hundreds of servers and wants major-league consolidation, the mainframe is the way to go."The savings and benefits are real and very practical," King said.

The problem is that the companies that achieve successful conversions tend, like Baldor, to have mainframe skills in-house already, he said. For most businesses, the idea of moving to a new hardware platform with significant investment and training is a tough decision, he said.

And as for prospects for Novell Inc., Shackelford said he was encouraged by the CEO's consistent vision and its demonstration at the recent BrainShare conference.

"Novell's technology maneuvers may change, but the strategy is the same and I appreciate that," he said. "I know where they are going and they are supporting us well, so I feel confident about the future."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Pam Derringer, News Writer .

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