Schools Speed Up By Scaling Down

Community colleges find performance gains -- and faculty and student satisfaction -- by moving old mainframe servers down to a Windows-based Unisys ES7000 for registration and back-ofice support.

May 13, 2005

5 Min Read
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When Lee College in Bayview, Texas was looking to upgrade its computer system 18 months ago, the college had several goals -- mainly speeding up registration and consolidating the sprawl of several underperforming commodity servers.

The college, a two-year school with some 6,000 students, was upgrading its PeopleSoft package, which includes financial, human resource, payroll, and student registration and record-keeping applications. An earlier version of the software running on several Windows servers was bringing the registration process to a crawl. "In our previous environment, we were too slow," says Dr. Carolyn Lightfoot, the college's chief information officer. "We didn't have the processing power."

After an extensive evaluation process, the college picked two ES7000 servers from Unisys Corp. to run the PeopleSoft applications. Once up and running, says Lightfoot, the improvements were immediately noticeable. With the old system, it would take 10 minutes to calculate tuition for each student, which would create backups, long lines, and much frustration during registration week. "Students and faculty were complaining," Lightfoot says. Now, the calculations are done instantaneously, Lightfoot says, which has streamlined the entire registration process " and eliminated complaints. At peak usage during registration, the system supports about 2,000 concurrent users.

Lee isn't the only college that has turned to Unisys' ES7000 line of high-end Windows servers. Several other schools, including Seminole Community College in Sanford, Fl., Butler Community College in Butler, Pa., and Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., have also deployed the Unisys machines. The colleges, as well as many private businesses that have bought the ES7000 servers, have a common goal with their technology spending, says John Keller, enterprise systems manager for Unisys: "It's all about trying to do more with less. You don't need to have 100 servers, and you don't need to have a high-priced Unix environment."

For many community colleges, which typically do not have extensive IT departments, standardizing on Windows may make sense because of the ease of support, says Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with Illuminata, an IT consulting business in Nashua, N.H. Supporting both Unix and Windows will introduce complexity that a lean staff may not be able to support, he says.At Seminole Community College, which has a total enrollment of nearly 32,000 students, training and support costs were key issues when the school was moving from a Unisys mainframe to a Windows environment. "If I put a Unix box in place, I'd have to hire Unix programmers," says Dick Hamann, vice president for information technology at Seminole. "The learning curve was a huge factor."

Like Lee College, Seminole was looking to update hardware to support new PeopleSoft applications. The price of deploying the Windows machines was $450,000, compared to the $3 million the school would have spent on a new mainframe, Hamann says.

Still, there were reservations about a Windows-based platform delivering the performance needed to keep the college up and running, Hamann says: "I couldn't afford to have blue screens every other day." However, performance and reliability have not been problems since converting to the ES7000, he adds; the system can easily support 7,500 concurrent users, compared to 250 on the Unisys mainframe.

"It's architecturally thinkable [now] to run a big operation on Windows," says Haff. Better reliability, improved development tools, and ease of support are among the contributing factors making high-end Windows servers an alternative for running robust, mission-critical applications, he says.

Playing In A Tight Market
Unisys was the first to develop a high-end Windows server when it introduced the ES7000 more than five years ago. But the market has gotten more crowded, with IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu among those that are selling competing products.The ES7000 servers, which range in price from $35,000 to $500,000, have been deployed by a variety of businesses, including Thomson Financial, Bank Leumi, and Premera Blue Cross. While Unisys holds less than 2 percent of the overall market for servers, it is a leading vendor of high-end Windows systems, says Jean Bozman, vice president of global enterprise server solutions for IDC. Among servers priced from $250,000 to $500,000, Unisys has 75 percent of the market, she says. The ES7000 servers run on Intel Xeon and Itanium 2 processors and can scale up to 32 processors; they run Windows 2000 and 2003 and the related versions of Windows Advanced Server and Windows Datacenter Server, and support has recently been added for Linux as well.

For Unisys, a $5.8 billion company that has moved aggressively into the IT services business, hardware in general and the ES7000 servers in particular make up just a fraction of overall revenue. In first-quarter results reported last month, the company posted a $45.5 million loss. Although overall enterprise server sales dipped slightly, ES7000 revenue "showed a high single-digit increase," the company reported. But uncertainties remain. CEO Joseph McGrath said the second quarter would be challenging, partly due to soft demand in the enterprise server business.

While Unisys was the first company to push into the high-end Windows market, its rivals may be more aggressive in updating their systems, says Haff. "The ES7000 is a mature platform at this point," he says, adding that the pace of upgrades is much slower than that of Hewlett-Packard and IBM, he says.

But for satisfied customers like Lee College, the Unisys servers are far from reaching their maximum potential. Plans are underway at the college to add a storage area network for archiving student records and financial data and to roll out another PeopleSoft module for calculating work hours of the school's laborers. "There's plenty of headroom to grow," Lightfoot says.

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