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An application framework for the future

Mar 22, 20046 mins
Data CenterERP SystemsIBM

From application services to management hardware, semiconductor reseller Smith & Associates strengthens its just-in-time business with new data center technologies.

Over the last two decades, Smith & Associates in Houston has built a global resale business out of being at the ready with semiconductor components when any one of its varied customers – from automakers to medical equipment manufacturers – comes calling. The calls always are urgent – an expected shipment of critical components hasn’t arrived on schedule, the buffer inventory is nearly depleted, and the vendor says the delivery delay might be weeks long. If the manufacturer doesn’t get more components shortly, a critical production line will screech to a halt.

Smith’s IT team has enabled account representatives to deal with the “I need it yesterday” demands of a global clientele through new-data-center-style application and infrastructure choices. In the process, it has built an application infrastructure that will support the company’s growth throughout this decade and beyond. Smith is among the first companies to take a hardware-based approach to managing its application infrastructure – shunning traditional management software as too complex and too costly to maintain.

Smith’s exploration of new data center concepts started with SalesChain X, the application used during those demanding customer negotiations. Smith’s IT team had three goals for the 7-year-old application: improve its performance, increase its scalability and integrate it with the company’s ERP application.

The team decided a complete re-architecture of SalesChain X, a Java application, was in order, including migration of SalesChain X onto a newer standards-based, Web-centric platform. Building a componentized, services-oriented application architecture would be critical for ensuring the flexibility and scalability needed to keep up with Smith’s expansion. The company recently opened its ninth office, adding Shanghai to a list of cities that includes Amsterdam; Barcelona, Spain; Guadalajara, Mexico; and Seoul, Korea, says Sean Trinh, vice president of IT at Smith.

Setting the new data center foundation at the application layer, Smith reworked SalesChain X using Sun’s Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition running on BEA Systems’ WebLogic platform. Application components are written using Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) technology. Java Message Service technology provides the messaging infrastructure between SalesChain X and specialized ERP applications, provided by Glovia International, a Fujitsu subsidiary, for engineer-to-order and high-volume manufacturers. “Tight integration with the ERP system gives us the ability to create sales orders without ever leaving the SalesChain application, making performance much improved. And the messaging infrastructure provides us with alert-type features so we can push data to traders rather than having them constantly requesting it,” Trinh says.

With that foundation, Smith’s IT team has begun planning its Web services architecture, Trinh says. Turning the EJB components into Web services will be easy with BEA’s tools, he says. “The more difficult part is mapping out all the services that will be exposed, identifying the service consumers and hashing out the life-cycle policy for the services,” he says.

New management: A must-have

With its next-generation applications infrastructure in the works, Smith needed a better way to manage that environment too, Trinh says. “With the complexity of our applications, software management tools [from BMC Software, IBM Tivoli and Peregrine Systems] weren’t providing the solution we expected. We decided to try something on the hardware side,” he says.

A demonstration of the Vieo 1000 appliance from start-up Vieo sold Trinh on the idea of management hardware. Unlike the disparate management software, the Vieo 1000 provides an integrated view – and control – of all the critical devices the application infrastructure uses. Trinh now could ensure 100% availability of the application infrastructure.

For now, Smith has seven mission-critical servers always attached to the Vieo 1000, all via 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet connections – the three WebLogic servers used for SalesChain X, two HP servers running the ERP applications and two Sendmail servers. Once the devices were attached, the management appliance auto-discovered, instrumented and blueprinted the infrastructure, delivering an end-to-end view of the application environment.

The IT team also has been testing the appliance’s usefulness for servers that house some of its less-critical applications, and for switches and routers, Trinh says. “We are hoping to learn how to do more with less and how to achieve better performance and availability with our existing hardware,” he says.

Although the Vieo 1000 will automate tasks such as server provisioning and problem resolution, Smith does not yet let the appliance run solo. “Smith has taken this all the way up to having the box evaluate everything and make suggestions, but it stops there. The network people then step in to implement the suggested changes or do their own,” says Ken Neusaenger, former director of technology at Smith. He is now CEO for ZettaWorks, an integrator he launched. ZettaWorks is working with Smith on these projects.

More automation to come

Smith likely will turn to self-healing eventually, Trinh says, but for now the IT team has discovered that having humans keep tabs on management information helps Smith plan its next moves.

For example, the IT team uses data from the Vieo to tweak the application infrastructure, says Eddie Garcia, a ZettaWorks senior architect. “Vieo provides charts for historical data, which we really didn’t have before. Now we can see how fast growth is in requests, connection pools and socket connections to servers,” he says. “That allows us to be able to know progressively what our peak times are and monitor to see how we’re utilizing the system resources. We get a better overall picture of how to provision resources for WebLogic.”

The Vieo management information has made Trinh and his team realize that server virtualization – another critical new data center technology – would work for its infrastructure in some instances. “We’re moving away from our approach of running one application on one server,” Trinh says.

With the Vieo 1000, Smith has turned the dreaded management chore into a model of new data center resourcefulness and flexibility. Trinh even attributes Vieo’s deployment for letting the company cut IT staff yet maintain support for a growing worldwide network. “Vieo makes information more readily available to us so we can better manage the health of our systems. The cost of maintenance is greatly reduced,” he says.

Those are the real benefits of a management appliance, Neusaenger says. “What would you rather spend your day doing? Fixing broken things and chasing performance-related issues, or leaving those tasks to an appliance so you can be forward-thinking on ways to improve the business?”