Speeding into the Modern Age

Data Center modernization saves money and energy for Transit Authority.

by David Baum, February 2010

Modernization may seem like a nebulous word in IT circles, where constant innovation is the rule rather than the exception. But at a time when environmentally responsible data center practices have become as important as improving technology capabilities and cutting costs, this perennial term takes on a much broader meaning. Today’s modernization projects include not just revamping legacy hardware and software assets but upgrading data center facilities as well.

According to Phil Fersht, research director in the global services practice at AMR Research, today’s modern data centers take advantage of renewable energy sources, better cooling systems, commodity hardware, virtualization software, and efficient systems-management practices to reduce costs and minimize the impact of IT on the environment.

Consider San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), a heavy-rail public transit system that connects the downtowns of Oakland and San Francisco, California, with neighboring cities to the south and east. When BART IT managers decided to modernize their data center around the concepts of virtualization, consolidation, and grid computing, the decision reflected a growing trend: a desire not only for new applications and better automated business processes, but also for a more flexible and more efficient IT infrastructure.

BART operates five lines on 104 miles of track with 43 stations in four counties. With average weekday traffic of 350,000 passengers, it is the fifth-busiest heavy-rail rapid transit system in the United States.

To support this round-the-clock operation, BART devised a four-part strategy for modernizing its IT infrastructure:

  • Upgrade. Swap mainframe-based financial and human resources (HR) applications for industry-leading PeopleSoft applications from Oracle running on blade servers.
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  • Strengthen. Deploy a high-availability infrastructure based on the principles of grid computing to match server and storage capacity more closely to actual demand.
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  • Consolidate. Manage IT infrastructure to reduce software license costs and simplify maintenance.
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  • Go green. Install rack-based cooling systems to reduce electricity use and minimize the organization’s carbon footprint.

On the Blade’s Edge
According to IT Manager Ravi Misra, BART’s modernization project was motivated by a desire to establish more-nimble information systems for finance, HR, and materials and maintenance functions. BART formerly depended on homegrown financial and HR systems that were no longer supporting the needs of its dynamic business. “We wanted to modernize our information systems because we want to get information in the right time frame to make timely decisions,” Misra says.

BART implemented Oracle’sPeopleSoft Enterprise applications to replace existing mainframe applications and to lessen its reliance on legacy skill sets. Misra and his colleagues chose to support the software with an infrastructure based on HP Integrity blade servers and the Oracle Enterprise Linux operating system—a configuration that provides greater capacity, scalability, and growth potential, because BART can run the PeopleSoft software in conjunction with new applications that it couldn’t run previously.

Additionally, standardizing on blade servers and the Oracle software stack reduces maintenance costs, minimizes resource consumption, and gives BART IT managers the flexibility to add more capacity as necessary.

“Merely upgrading the memory on midrange servers would have cost [US]$50,000,” Misra says. “Now, if we need more capacity, we can just add another server to the main system. Plus we minimize energy usage by not purchasing extra capacity we don’t need.”

High Availability with Oracle RAC
BART does need a highly available IT infrastructure to support its HR and financial systems. “We are a 24-hour shop, and people are going in and out and changing work orders and doing transfers continually,” says Misra. “We decided to go with Oracle Real Application Clusters [Oracle RAC] to improve reliability. In the last two and a half years, we did not have any unscheduled downtime at all.”

BART also deployed Oracle RAC as part of its plan to bring grid architecture IT resources so they can be provisioned, distributed, and redistributed as needed. This differs from the strategy of most data centers, where a distinct server is deployed for each application and each server uses only a fraction of its capacity on a daily basis. BART’s blade server environment, by contrast, houses multiple operating environments that share capacity as needed.

“Traditionally, software applications are sized for peak loads, which means there’s a lot of extra capacity that isn’t used effectively,” says AMR Research’s Fersht, pointing out that grid environments deliver more computing power for less overall cost.

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