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Linux nudges aside Unix for financial services company

First Trust Corp. has put Linux at the heart of its business, pushing aside long-standing Unix systems to realize substantial cost savings and a performance increase.

First Trust Corp. could serve as the poster child for Linux in the enterprise.

The Denver-based trust company is using Linux to run its mission-critical transactional databases on industry-standard 64-bit servers, at a 50% cost savings, and at the expense of Unix. Sounds like First Trust has covered the top three items on Linux's evangelical hit parade.

"We've been using Linux for two years on non-outward facing systems -- for in-house things," said Jeff Knight, First Trust's vice president of technology. "We felt the timing was right."

First Trust acts as a trustee for self-directed retirement plans, providing back-office record-keeping services for financial services companies. Like most enterprises, it had been running Unix for its databases and transaction processing. First Trust had used IBM's AIX operating system on IBM pSeries RS6000 servers.

"We were looking for a way to reduce expenses and increase throughput," Knight said. "We knew about Linux and were looking for an opportunity to deploy it in our production environment, because of the cost savings. Plus, our operations group likes Linux."

A longtime Hewlett-Packard Co. customer, First Trust talked to HP and Oracle Corp. about the options they provided. Eventually, First Trust decided to use HP's Itanium 2-based Integrity servers running Red Hat Advanced Server 2.1 software with an Oracle 9i Real Application Cluster.

First Trust bought four boxes. The company put two into production and is using two as development and test environments. Knight said the company plans to buy more next year and roll out Linux into other areas.

"Scalability is very important to us. We're growing, and we know we're going to continue to grow," Knight said. "The scalability of Linux has not even been pushed to the edge yet, I think. It's nice to be able to take the cluster, throw on another box on the fly and add and deploy more databases if needed."

Knight could not reveal how much money First Trust is saving with the move, but he said that, if the company had stuck with the Unix configuration, the hardware needs would be greater –- it would take a pair of four-way 32-bit RS6000 servers to do what two two-way 64-bit servers are doing.

"Our licensing costs are cut in half right there," Knight said. AIX, however, has not been completely wiped out at First Trust. Knight said the company still runs it for its core record-keeping system.

Linux, meanwhile, is at the heart of the company's transaction processing for equities and mutual funds. "Those are very important, critical functions for our operation. Our clients won't stand for downtime; that's why the clustering and failover capabilities are so important."

Knight said First Trust has realized an increase of three to five times in database processing throughput, and he attributes the improvement to the Itanium 2 64-bit architecture and the behavior of Linux and Oracle on 64-bit processors. He said his IT group has been able to reduce a load time from 24 hours to one hour, which has been especially beneficial for backup functions.

Knight said it hasn't all been wine and roses. First Trust initially brought in the first generation of Itanium, but that didn't live up to expectations. Knight said it was a mistake to go with such an introductory technology.

Once the Itanium 2-based servers were up and running, there were training and configuration issues the IT group had to resolve.

"The Itanium 2 servers, you plug them in and they work, but we had to make sure we had the configuration correct. That is very complicated," Knight said. "The support teams [from HP, Red Hat and Oracle] jumped in and helped. I think it's important to go with a proven partner."

Itanium 1 may have been a mistake, but it did deliver impressive benchmarks that Knight used to bolster his case with the company's decision makers.

"The benchmarks we got running our databases on Itanium 1 were astounding," Knight said. "When HP, Red Hat and Intel offered their assistance, that made us more comfortable and made this an easier project to sell. We were able to take those test results to the president and eventually buy additional boxes.

"The increase in processing capability helped us reduce our costs. This is a nice industry-standard pairing, [and it] helped us save a lot of money."

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