Taking your ERP system 24x7x365: Page 2

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NT clustering slowly gains credibility

For those companies choosing to run their ERP systems in a Windows NT environment, clustering is likely to be a challenge--at least in the short term.

For organizations worrying about keeping their ERP systems 24x7, they worry about whether NT is a basket strong enough to put all of their eggs into, says Sam Wee, a partner at Benchmarking Partners, a Cambridge, Mass., consultancy. And there is a real reluctance on the part of very large organizations to put all of their ERP eggs into the NT basket.

Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., is well aware of the concern and is taking steps to remedy the situation. SQL Server 7.0 is more robust than previous versions, and Microsoft promises that the next version of Windows NT, dubbed Windows 2000 and due sometime within the next 12 months, will have the upgraded features of today's WolfPack (code name for an engineering project for clustering NT 4.0.) and Microsoft Cluster Server.

All of this is likely to help but won't necessarily solve the problem, says Neil Barton, head of the client/server computing practice at Compass America, a Reston, Va.-based management consultancy specializing in business improvement.

"It will help, but you still need to have a relational database management system that hooks into the cluster server," says Barton. "And on top of that, you have to have an ERP system that will work with that particular version of that particular RDBMS. And not every RDBMS works with WolfPack, while not every ERP system works with every RDBMS. It's quite complicated."

Even ERP and hardware vendors are leery. Hewlett-Packard Co., of Palo Alto, Calif., and Oracle Corp., of Redwood Shores, Calif., which last year announced an agreement to provide high-availability solutions through an integrated hardware-software bundle, limited their agreement to UNIX-based systems. At the time, an Oracle spokesperson declined to promise high availability on the NT platform, preferring instead to wait until Microsoft had further proven itself in that arena.

Others say all of the brouhaha over clustering is a moot point. "It's best to install and implement an ERP system with the capacity to meet the needs of the enterprise for the foreseeable future and to grow into it rather than adding to the system by clustering. Clustering is a Band-Aid solution," says Michael Charchaflian, president of Automation & Information Planners Inc., a Worcester, Mass., consulting firm specializing in productivity and process improvements. "While it may be necessary in the short term, clustering is less efficient than purchasing a system that will meet your company's long-term needs. Clustering should not take place by design."

"It's really complicated," Coup notes. "At the application layer, you've got SAP and different bolt-on functions such as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). Then at the infrastructure level, you have the Sun Microsystems UNIX servers and all the middleware that is scheduling and running the jobs and monitoring the networks."

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been in the change-management area. "We have talked to other companies running high-reliability UNIX environments, and they have told us that the change-management process is one of the most important things to a high-reliability environment, and we have found that to be the case," Coup says.

To face the reality of 24x7x365, Texas Instruments technologists meet each day to detail the various changes that are being requested or are needed from all of the various constituencies. Eventually, Coup expects the group to meet weekly or monthly, but for now change management necessitates a daily meeting.

Taking the plunge

Once you have decided to go 24x7x365, it makes sense to analyze each part of your system, optimizing it for maximum reliability and availability.

To truly succeed, you must focus on a plethora of inter-related tasks, including retraining administrators and help-desk personnel, negotiating special service and support agreements with your hardware partner, extending your system management guidelines so they map with the new requirements, adding an emergency computer center with a stand-by ERP system, and adapting your change management to the new requirements.

Experts recommend starting with your hardware. Most ERP vendors work closely with hardware vendors and integrate their software directly into the hardware platforms. At this point, most hardware vendors have 99.99% availability of their platforms, "and we work closely with them to make sure they have high up time," says Oracle Applications' O'Malley.

Redundant systems and spare backups also are an important part of the hardware equation. "If you want to run a 24x7 shop, you have to make sure that your service level ensures that you have spare backups on site or a commitment to get spare backups very quickly," SAP America's Alfano notes. "The challenge is to ensure that you are working with your selected vendor to make sure it has fault-tolerant and fault-resilient components that will allow you to provide uninterrupted service to that next layer." "A lot of these fault-tolerant infrastructural things are becoming increasingly common and increasingly relied upon," says Sam Wee, a partner at Benchmarking Partners, a Cambridge, Mass., consultancy. Having mirrored disks and a full backup system on site is part of the equation, but Wee says it's also crucial to have redundancy all the way out to the desktop and make sure there is no single point of failure. "You have to be extra sure that the basket will be resilient enough, because all of your eggs are now in a bigger basket."

Today, for the most part, ERP systems are being implemented in client/server environments. And like ERP systems, client/server architectures consist of multiple components--unlike the mainframe. But while that may have been an impediment as little as five years ago, the concerns have slowly vanished, Wee says. Today, UNIX-based client/server ERP systems use tools and utilities comparable to those that exist in the mainframe world, giving these environments high availability. And because the ERP system tends to ride on the operating system, issues regarding client/server environments are kept to a minimum.

For most companies, regardless of what is back at the datacenter, there has to be some type of upward movement to a more distributed set of tools as part of the ERP implementation. "At some point, a client/server ERP application requires that you have a process in place for not only maintaining the server, but for maintaining the clients as well," Wee says.

After you can be sure your hardware can stand the test, it's time to turn to your software. As Texas Instruments' Coup found out, making sure your ERP software works well with other software installed on your system is very important. That's where a consultant can really come in handy.

Oracle's solution for keeping its systems functioning and operating smoothly with other software is the Internet. Its browser-based interface, which is part of the new Oracle 11, has all of the functionality of its ERP system, but all of the code has been moved off the desktop.

"One of the areas where you see a lot of downtime is the desktop, because desktops are relatively unmanageable. End users have the ability to alter the environment by adding software or configuring something that may break another piece of software," says O'Malley from Oracle Applications. By moving to the Internet, vendors are attempting to remove the potential for damaging major programs within the application, some experts say.

Moving significant portions of the ERP system to the Internet also helps companies upgrade software. When a patch must be deployed or a new release installed, systems no longer must be shut down for a weekend. Instead, when a user connects to the system, he or she will be running the newest software within minutes.

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