IT execs see need for less complex systems

Von Patrick Thibodeau

Among the ways Ameritrade Holding Corp. is looking to reduce IT complexity and costs is a decision to move Unix platforms to Linux operating systems running on Intel-based hardware -- a process the company began a year ago and hopes to complete in 18 months.

A Linux system on Intel hardware is easier to maintain, said Gary Greenwald, vice president of application engineering and operations at Columbia, Md.-based Ameritrade, because if a server fails, all he has to do is replace it. With the large Unix system, engineers had to conduct tests to determine the source of the problem

"Diagnosing problems tended to be very time-consuming because of the complexity of our systems," Greenwald said Tuesday at the Enterprise Management World conference in Bethesda, Maryland.

Greenwald"s key objective is to shift IT money previously spent on hardware maintenance to other areas, such as developing new customer-facing services. To free up those resources, said Greenwald, IT complexity needs to be reduced.

If there is an overarching theme at this conference, which is sponsored by Computerworld and Distributed Management Task Force Inc., it is that need to reduce complexity. With that in mind, conference attendees said the continued development of standards such as those created by the DMTF could help ease IT"s ability to manage a heterogeneous environment.

But users said there are other steps companies can take to simplify their IT management.

Among those other steps: Leveraging as many components and services as possible, said Jamie Sguerra, second vice president, chief architect and senior business systems officer at Guardian Life Insurance Co. Sguerra, who took part in a panel discussion, said doing that means the skills sets of developers "will be one and the same" -- allowing them to be moved around without being retrained.

John Bryer, vice president of IT at Newtown Square, Pa.-based GMH Communities Trust, said his company took a number of applications that took "a disproportionate amount of resources to support" but were used by a small number of employees, and moved them to an application service provider outsourcing model. Doing that, he said, helped free up internal IT resources.

While the goals are the same -- reduced complexity -- the approaches taken by different companies aren"t. Even as Ameritrade is moving off Unix systems from Sun Microsystems Inc., Jim Hull, vice president of engineering services at MasterCard International Inc., said his company is mixing up its environments. The financial services giant uses Sun Solaris as well as IBM AIX Unix systems, he said.

Put simply, Hull doesn"t believe Linux has the maturity to take over operations. "I don"t think it"s where it needs to be yet," he said.

While users move to standardize systems in the hopes of saving money and complexity, they are warily eyeing industry consolidations such as Oracle Corp."s planned US$5.85 billion purchase of Siebel Systems Inc.

One attendee, Ron Cramer, communications management and technology coordinator at State Farm Life Insurance Co. in Bloomington, Ill., said the planned acquisition "waters down your choices, especially as consumers."

Although State Farm uses Microsoft Corp."s SQL database, Cramer believes Oracle"s acquisition of Siebel will have consequences for all users if it limits technology choices. "We"re constantly evaluating new suppliers," he said.

Josh Freeman, director of IT at the New York Botanical Garden and a panelist, said consolidation "provides opportunity for start-ups" because large firms often leave gaps in services.