Strange Bedfellows: NT, UNIX and The Integration Option


In this article:
At A Glance: Standard Federal Bank
Sticker Shock: What does all this cost?
Step by step
The big names in systems integration

The corporate mergers of the 1990s have created some very odd couples from the IT perspective. Consider Standard Federal Bank, the largest thrift east of California, and its new owner, the Dutch company ABN AMRO Bank N.V.

Photo: Neal Peters Photo Archive

Standard Federal, based in Troy, Mich., uses various systems, chiefly UNIX from Unisys. According to Janet Duke, vice president of information systems at Standard, the bank wants to move toward Windows NT. ABN AMRO, the world's 15th largest bank holding company, has decided that NT is the corporate OS of its future.

The two companies seem to be on the same wavelength, but here's the rub: NT isn't ready yet for heavy-duty transaction processing. Even if NT were fully featured and ready to rumble, Standard Federal couldn't exactly throw away its existing UNIX systems--which house all mission-critical code.

How can it reconcile the conflicting requirements without going broke? For that, says Duke, "You need to find someone who is very, very knowledgeable." For that, you need a systems integrator. For Standard Federal, that meant Unisys.

As more companies move toward wider use of NT in their mainframe and UNIX environments, they face the same dilemma: How do you keep the old, bring in the new, and use both where they make the most sense?

Why mix?

AT A GLANCE: Standard Federal Bank

The company:A subsidiary of ABN AMRO Bank N.V., Standard Federal Bank operates a retail network of 172 banking centers. It also includes 10 home lending centers and 430 ATMs. As of November 30 1997, the company had assets of $14.6 billion.

The problem:Although the bank had several years of experience with UNIX systems, it wished to implement a document and image-processing system based on NT.

The solution:Standard Federal implemented an NT server-based system that was separate from its UNIX-based mission-critical devices. The bank employed the services of systems integrator Unisys Information Services Group.

The IT infrastructure: An assortment of servers, chiefly UNIX devices from Unisys, plus 10 NT servers.

Given the myriad problems likely to arise, why would anyone choose a mixed NT-UNIX environment, especially when doing so will almost certainly require the extra expense of a systems integrator? The reasons are both technical and financial.

Despite the many improvements Microsoft has made in NT, most experts don't believe the OS is either scalable or reliable enough yet to do big-system computing by itself. "I [still] buy UNIX when I need mission-critical systems," says John Logan, an analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston, a high-tech consulting firm.

NT simply isn't ready to support the thousands of users and millions of transactions in real time, at least not in such a way as to make IT feel particularly comfortable with it. "If you look at NT alone, you just can't get the scalability you need," says Paul McGuire, a principal with Unisys Information Services Group, the systems integration arm of Unisys. He puts his faith in Microsoft's upcoming clustering extensions to provide that scalability, but that's at least a year away. When Unisys wants to cluster NT systems now, it uses software it developed with Tandem.

Even if you can get NT's scalability problem solved, there's the issue of how stable the resulting application would be. Brian Croll, director of marketing for Solaris at Sun Microsystems, says NT provides "a huge challenge in terms of systems that don't crash."

Then there are financial considerations. With UNIX widely installed throughout many enterprises, no one in his or her right mind, or at least destined for long-term employment, is going to make a wholesale switch to NT any time soon.

Yet NT's pricing and its integration with other Microsoft technologies that now permeate most companies' information systems increasingly make it an appealing, less expensive buy for a variety of applications.

In order to get the most for their infrastructure dollar, IT people are mixing their environments. They're keeping existing and mission-critical applications on UNIX servers, then connecting them to smaller NT servers.

Recent IT buying patterns underscore the mixed solutions Standard Federal and others are deploying. A recent survey by the investment bank Cowen & Co., in association with Datamation, finds that sales of UNIX servers have remained steady in the midst of the NT boom (see chart, above).

The same survey finds the trend toward UNIX is stronger in mainframe shops. No less than 54% of respondents who indicated they were planning to replace large systems claimed they would do so with UNIX. Only 8% said NT was a viable alternative.

According to the survey, mixed UNIX and NT environments are clearly the shape of things to come.

Matchmaker, matchmaker . . .

Deploying two operating systems means that very different devices must be able to coexist productively. How can IT executives have their mixed environments, keep costs down, and eat their cake, too?

Says Unisys' McGuire, "Today, everyone outsources everything." Thus, he says, the mixed UNIX-NT environment is typically the result of a contract with a third-party integrator. The partnership between the IT end user and the professional systems integrator then faces three distinct barriers to integration.

Andrew Lowe, PSW Technologies, says IT people ought to be very reluctant to trust the NT version of an application that is running successfully on a UNIX system.

Only one of those barriers--and perhaps the least daunting--is technology. Proponents of UNIX have been at the business of linking their OS to others for so long that many of the major problems have been solved, or at least wired around, says Andrew J. Lowe, an architect with the systems integrator and software consulting firm PSW Technologies in Austin, Texas. Lowe is also the author of Porting UNIX Applications to Windows NT, published by Macmillan Technical Publishing in 1997.

Both NT and UNIX share some fundamental assumptions about how communications will work. "In NT, networking is done with Win-Sockets," Lowe says. "And these are very similar to Berkeley sockets," which are the basis of networking for most varieties of UNIX.

This does not mean there are no technical issues, he explains. Just because an application has been ported from UNIX to NT, it may not mean that it will behave exactly the same. IT people are and ought to be very reluctant to trust the NT version of an application that is running successfully on a UNIX system.

The answer seems to be not to port the application at all. Keep UNIX applications on UNIX and NT apps on NT, then port data rather than code. Says Aberdeen's Logan, "What we see is a lot of interest in the idea of moving data between the apps."

That sort of thing is getting easier. Partly as the result of the client/ server trend, there's been a boom in middleware to link UNIX data to NT data.

And, says Aberdeen's Logan, "management is actually getting easier. You've got three major companies--Computer Associates with its TNG-Unicenter, Tivoli, and Hewlett-Packard--all working on it. It may take a while, but eventually they're going to have it [management of distributed NT and UNIX systems] perfected."

Worse than a novice

The other two problems to mixing UNIX and NT are a lot harder to solve, even though they're not technical. The first is cultural.

Suddenly, the IT chief will find that his or her well-paid and extensively trained UNIX gurus are almost useless. "It's worse than if they were novices," says Lowe, "because when you're a novice, you expect a learning curve."

Money matters

The third barrier, and the real concern for IT people, is the payback. How do you get value from your investment in a systems integrator, and how do you prove you've done so?

STICKER SHOCK: What does all this cost?

The answer depends on the systems integrator you choose and the specific task at hand. However, notes Tom Garrity of Litton Enterprise Solutions, the largest recurring cost is labor. In a setting of 10 to 15 servers using only one operating system, you might need two administrators at most. But if you are using both UNIX and NT together, you'd need at least four administrators, since the skillset isn't the same. Since an administrator's salary will be between $60K and $80K, a mixed environment could cost an additional $160K in terms of staffing alone.

Next, he says, is the price of the equipment itself, although that is almost secondary to the cost of managing the resulting mixed system. This usually requires the purchase of system management tools, something like CA Unicenter or Tivoli's DSM Framework, at a cost of up to a $1 million.

To a certain extent, says Brad Holland, senior systems analyst at systems integrator Information Systems Management in British Columbia, you can only do so by using negative evidence--by looking at the money you did not spend. "You really can't measure it [value from mixed systems] today," he says. "You have to say, Ask me next year how many additional people I've hired to manage these systems. If I'm not hiring more than you had been, then I'm doing my job."

This savings seems to be a theme. Consider, for example, Star Markets, a Cambridge, Mass.-based chain of grocery stores. "We are at 52 locations," notes Lois C. Zambello, senior manager of information services for the company. Star had 9,400 employees as of 1997, and 1997 sales of $954.5 million.

Each store has an NT server providing local computing services. The stores are linked to UNIX-based (NCR and IBM RS/6000) mission-critical systems at the central location in Massachusetts via a frame relay network. "And, as part of the rollout," says Zambello, "we had to be able to manage all the servers, as well as additional clients such as PCs, printers, and controllers. The question was how do we manage all that from Cambridge."

Her solution was first to work with a systems integrator she believed to be reliable-- Litton Enterprise Solutions--and to make use of a distributed system management tool, Computer Associates' Unicenter, which could take care of NT and UNIX devices. "With NT and UNIX, you can have support issues," she notes.

The real staffing savings came in the use of the systems integrator. It means that Star didn't have to extend its own resources to establish the mixed environment in the first place.

In the short term, mixed UNIX and NT environments, put together by systems integrators, may be the best and only option for many IT people. It protects their existing investment, keeps their mission-critical systems on trusted devices, and gives them a path to follow into NT-centric computing. //

Step by step

Follow these guidelines in order to accomplish a successful installation of mixed environments.

Step one: Mission definition.Begin by defining what it is you want to achieve with your mixed environment, and indeed, whether you really want one. At this point, begin shopping around for a systems integrator. This can take as long as six months.

Step two: Mission clarification.Once you have selected an integrator, work with that company and your own staff to clarify your goal. This differs from Mission Definition in that it sets the precise limits of your intent, and thus helps prevent mission creep. This process can take two weeks or longer.

Step three: Planning.The general consensus among those who know is that you should expect to spend two to three months on this aspect alone. Planning should include a site survey at each location, even if (or particularly if) you think they are identical.The systems integrator should be on site and help perform the survey.

Step four: Preparation.Preparing the sites themselves for the new hardware and software is complex. In particular beware of local phone companies and power supplies, both of which can suddenly leave you with less capacity than is needed. Again, plan to spend two to three months on this process. You should also train the staff during this time. The systems integrator can provide insights and (sometimes) services for both goals.

Step five: Actual implementation.The physical installation of the systems can be surprisingly brief. Assume two to three weeks for the implementation. Of course, the systems integrator is actually on site full-time for this process.

Step six: Final cutover.Going live with the installation can be done in one to two days. It's best to do it over a weekend. The systems integrator should be present throughout the process and standing by for subsequent troubleshooting.

The big names in systems integration

American Management Systems
4050 Legato Road, Fairfax, VA 22033
1996 sales ($ mil.): 812.2 1996 employees: 6,800
Description:An international consulting firm that designs and integrates technological solutions for an array of businesses. AMS develops and customizes system-specific software for individual clients and also sells the software as an individual product. The telecommunications industry makes up about 40% of AMS's sales, but its largest single customer is the U.S. government, which accounts for about 13% of sales.

Andersen Consulting
100 S. Wacker Drive, Ste. 1070, Chicago, Ill. 60606
1996 sales ($ mil.): 5,302
1996 employees: 44,801
Description:Andersen is the world's largest management and technology consulting firm. The company's success stems from its global presence and technical competence. Its professional staff are trained intensively and work directly with major computer and software suppliers.

Arthur D. Little
25 Acorn Park, Cambridge, Mass. 02140
1996 sales ($ mil.): 574
1996 employees: 3,000
Description:Arthur D. Little holds the honor of being the world's first consulting firm. The company specializes in the areas of management consulting; safety, health and environmental consulting; and product and technology development. It operates nearly 200 laboratories and research facilities. About 60% of its clients are based outside the U.S. and the company runs about 50 offices worldwide.

Booz, Allen & Hamilton
8283 Greensboro Drive, McLean, Va. 22102
1997 sales ($ mil.): 1,300
1997 employees: 7,200
Description:This company's Worldwide Commercial Business Unit provides various consulting services to corporations. Its largest segment, the Worldwide Technology Business Unit, works primarily for U.S. government agencies, providing computer and other technology consulting and evaluation services. The firm operates 85 offices in the U.S. and around the world.

Cap Gemini
Place de l'Etoile, 11 rue de Tilsitt, 75017 Paris, France
1996 sales ($ mil.): 2,855.4
1996 employees: 29,950
Description:Cap Gemini is the leading non-U.S. computer services firm. It provides consulting, systems management, software development, systems integration and other services to large clients such as British Steel, Stockholm Energi, and Volvo. Its U.S. subsidiary, Cap Gemini America, is based in New York City.

Coopers & Lybrand
1301 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10019
1997 sales ($ mil.): 7,695
1997 employees: 74,000
Description:Coopers & Lybrand is an international partnership that serves clients in more than 140 countries. The company operates two primary segments: auditing and accounting, and business consulting. Areas of consulting include technology and systems, financial management, and business analysis among others.

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu
1633 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10019
1997 sales ($ mil.): 7,400
1997 employees: 65,000
Description:Like many of the Big Six accounting firms, DTTI operates in two main areas--accounting and auditing, and business consulting services, the latter includes systems integration. This firm operates offices in 690 cities in 125 countries.

Digital Equipment
111 Powder Mill Road, Maynard, Mass. 01754
1997 sales ($ mil.)*: 13,046.7
1997 employees*: 54,900
Description:Digital is one of the world's top suppliers of networked computer systems, components, software, and services. In addition to hardware, the company sells a wide range of technical support services for its products as well as those from other companies.

Electronic Data Systems
5400 Legacy Drive, Plano, Texas 75024
1996 sales ($ mil.): 14,441.3
1996 employees: 100,000
Description:Founded by Ross Perot, EDS is one of the largest data processing companies in the U.S. The company provides corporate outsourcing, datacenter management, network management?, and reengineering for companies in many fields, including the insurance, automotive, financial, and communications industries, and for the U.S. and foreign governments.

Ernst & Young
787 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019
1997 sales ($ mil.): 9,100
1997 employees: 79,750
Description:Ernst & Young offers accounting and consulting services from its more than 650 offices in more than 100 countries (about 65% of its fees come from outside the U.S.). The firm's business consultancy provides information and assistance in fields that include healthcare, personnel, and information technology.

3000 Hanover St., Palo Alto, Calif. 94304
1997 sales ($ mil.): 42,895
1997 employees: 112,000
Description:HP is the third largest provider of PCs, second largest provider of servers, second largest provider of peripherals, and fourth in services such as systems integration according to various market researchers.

One Old Orchard Road, Armonk, N.Y. 10504
1996 sales ($ mil.): 75,947
1996 employees: 240,615
Description:IBM is the world's top provider of computer hardware, software and services. Aside from selling a broad range of desktop, midrange and mainframe computers and servers, IBM also provides information technology services such as consulting and systems integration.

KPMG International
3 Chestnut Ridge Road, Montvale, N.J. 07645
1997 sales ($ mil.): 9,200
1997 employees: 83,500
Description:KPMG's almost 830 offices provide audit, accounting, and a variety of consulting services to clients in approximately 150 nations. Consulting practices include taxes, personnel management, and information technology, to name just a few.

Price Waterhouse
Southwark Towers, 32 London Bridge St., London SE1 9SY, U.K.
1997 sales ($ mil.): 5,630
1997 employees: 60,000
Description:Price Waterhouse is the smallest of the Big Six accounting firms. It has more than 430 offices in 120 countries. Its areas of consulting specialization include energy, entertainment, communications, financial services, and technology.

Shared Medical Systems
51 Valley Stream Parkway, Malvern, Pa. 19355
1996 sales ($ mil.): 767.4
1996 employees: 5,420
Description:Shared Medical is the leading provider of health care information systems to hospitals and health care organizations in North America and Europe. The company provides a comprehensive line of systems including clinical, financial, administrative, and more. Its systems work on a range of computers from mainframes to PCs. It provides the systems for use on site or at the SMS Information Services Center. SMS's services include system installation, support, education, network design, and integration.

Siemens Nixdorf Informationssysteme AG
ASW C3, Otto-Hahn-Ring 6, D-81739 Munchen
1996 sales ($ mil.): 9,200
1996 employees: 35,850
Description:Siemens Nixdorf provides comprehensive consulting, training and support for Windows NT and UNIX. It was one of the first organizations to ship clustered Windows NT servers, using Microsoft's clustering technology known as Wolfpack. SNI and Microsoft have a specific strategic partnership to advance Windows NT in the enterprise.

Township Line and Union Meeting Roads, Blue Bell, Pa. 19424
1996 sales ($ mil.): 6,370.5
1996 employees: 32,900
Description:Information management company Unisys provides computer hardware and software, but focuses on systems integration and customer support. Its clients include Lufthansa Airlines, Pacific Bell, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

--compiled by David McKeon

*Because many companies' fiscal year-end is scheduled for December 1997, results were not available. Note: Coopers & Lybrand plans to merge with Price Waterhouse and will become No. 2 of the large accounting firms. Ernst & Young is merging with KPMG to form the new No. 1.