Mainframe consolidation saves cash for Pennsylvania government

In the Pennsylvania state government, the mainframe still plays a crucial role delivering applications to users and handling the government’s business.

“We have some applications that are huge [and still run best on the mainframe],” says Naomi Wyatt, secretary of administration for Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell. The state has lots of custom-built, complex applications “that have been developed on mainframe technology,” she notes.

[ U.S. House decommissions its last mainframe, saves $730,000 ]

The state’s Department of Transportation, for example, uses mainframe applications to handle millions of transactions related to driver’s licenses and automobile registrations in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Welfare uses the mainframe for systems that pay out millions of dollars to healthcare providers in Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Despite relying on old-school technology, the state has undertaken two significant data center consolidation efforts in the past decade to modernize its IT systems. And Pennsylvania officials plan to increasingly rely on virtualization technology to make better use of space and rein in energy costs.

Ten years ago, about 15 agencies were running their own mainframes when the state decided to move them all into one building, which Pennsylvania officials call the “Data Powerhouse.”

“We saved a ton of money in terms of energy costs, and in terms of staffing costs because instead of having 15 separate agencies running 24/7 mainframe operations, they’re all in one place,” Wyatt says.

More recently, Pennsylvania officials realized they were wasting money because their aging fleet of mainframes required high spending on energy and maintenance. The data center contained 14 mainframes that were all at least 10 years old, Wyatt says. Because of advancements in mainframe technology, Pennsylvania is able to replace all 14 with about five or six new ones, mainly IBM System z10 and Unisys Dorado and Libra mainframes. It’s a 12-to-18 month project that is about 80% finished.

The state pays Unisys to manage the mainframe data center. At one point the contract cost $100 million a year, but consolidation of mainframes will save the state about $240 million in the next five years because of savings on energy and because fewer staff hours will be needed to manage the smaller fleet. Cost savings are always important, but particularly now because of huge shortfalls caused by declining tax revenue, Wyatt says.

Large technology upgrade projects can often cause headaches, however, and Wyatt was concerned about consolidating departmental applications onto fewer machines. “Each agency had its own equipment, and they liked that and they felt like they could control it,” she says. “In the new world they are sharing equipment. We were a little worried that people wouldn’t play nice together, but surprisingly the transition went really well.”

Sharing resources has some obvious benefits. Because of new memory sharing technology, applications that need more memory aren’t artificially constrained, Wyatt said.

“Because we’re sharing equipment, we can scale up their memory and allow them to go onto other people’s equipment,” she said.

In addition to Pennsylvania’s mainframe data center, the state has a server farm with non-mainframe machines, and various servers scattered throughout government agencies. These are mainly Windows-based IBM x86 servers running e-mail for 85,000 employees, BlackBerry services, an enterprise Web portal, emergency operations, and other applications.

The state is already using VMware, and is evaluating a project to bring distributed servers into the centralized server farm and increase use of virtualization. Managing servers distributed throughout various agencies is one of the IT department’s biggest challenges, so officials are looking to treat x86 machines with the same centralized approach they have applied to mainframes.“When you have little data centers they take time, energy and staff,” Wyatt says. “You’re not really optimizing the technology you have. … We’ve got servers located in places that aren’t ideal, and we want to pull those into properly cooled areas.”

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This story, "Mainframe consolidation saves cash for Pennsylvania government" was originally published by Network World.

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