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The Wrong Choice: Farm-products chain says Wintel is a saddle sore

Blue screens of death and constant middle-of-the-night phone calls led a chain of retail stores to regret its Unix-to-Windows migration.

It took three years for Tractor Supply Co. to migrate its IT environment from Unix to Windows on Intel. After the deed was done, it only took a few weeks for the IT staff to realize that Windows was the wrong choice.

"We saw blue screens of death and got calls in the middle of the night constantly," said Stevan Townsend, manager of database and BASIS administration for TSC, a nationwide chain of stores that deals in farm and ranch products; the Nashville, Tenn.-based company's 2002 revenue surpassed $1 billion. "It didn't take us long to realize that Wintel was not the wisest move."

TSC's enterprise migration saga started five years ago. Back then, TSC ran Solaris on Sun's SPARC servers. Buying new SPARC servers to accommodate growth was expensive, as was maintaining existing servers and software, Townsend said. The price performance of Intel-based servers appealed to TSC's IT vice president. The team wasn't aware of Linux as an enterprise option at the time, having concentrated on Unix, Townsend said. Also, they didn't look into Linux because the VP was smitten with Wintel.

During the complex, three-year migration of all TSC's IT systems to Windows on Intel, the 40-plus person IT team began to have misgivings. Just running the data warehouse on Wintel called for constant purchases of new servers, Townsend said. "Every 18 months, we outgrew and had to throw out our servers," he said. "That's a lot of hassle just for scalability."

The scalability issue was just one problem. Constant crashes, lack of good failover options, problems with remote management and even price-performance issues cropped up, Townsend said. Things came to a head when TSC had to move to eight-processor Intel SMP servers running Oracle 8i on Windows and Veritas Cluster Server to handle the workload. This approach was not only costly but a bear to manage. The maintenance and administration costs became "unacceptable," he said.

So the IT team considered going back to Unix, then ruled it out because of cost. Looking for an alternative Intel platform, TSC evaluated Solaris on Intel and Linux. "We felt that Sun wasn't committed to the Intel architecture, so that left Linux," Townsend said.

Two years ago, Linux-based servers running Oracle database software were placed in hundreds of TSC retail stores for back-end, point-of-sale applications. The IT staff and users were impressed with the results. "Once Linux was up, we didn't have to do anything with it," said Townsend. "It's very stable."

Little by little, TSC has been moving more applications onto Linux. "Currently, we're using Red Hat Linux 6.2, an old version that's very solid," Townsend said. "We have Linux systems that have been running for years without a boot."

TSC is in the process of migrating its production point-of-sale data warehouse to a Linux-based PolyServe-powered cluster. PolyServe Inc., Beaverton, Ore., develops shared data clustering software for Linux-based data centers. Using the PolyServe cluster will significantly reduce server costs compared with the alternative of purchasing a failover cluster of two expensive eight-processor systems, Townsend said. The six-node cluster will deliver higher levels of availability and will be easier to manage than a two-node cluster of bigger SMP machines.

As soon as its data warehouse goes into production, TSC is going to build a central repository for all of its stores using PolyServe on Linux, Townsend said. Next on the migration list are the sales audit, database and SAP environments.

While moving to Linux offers many benefits, Townsend is very happy about one in particular: "No more blue screens!"


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