Mission Critical: Miami’s New 911 System Part of Growing Global Trend

WASHINGTON — July 14, 2010 — In the world of IT, there are some jobs that simply must get done. The systems that support those high-priority tasks must be essentially perfect. If a bank loses all its customer deposits, for example, or an Internet retailer’s payment processing system goes down for even a few seconds, there could be disastrous consequences for the organization and its customers.

Organizations are re-thinking their architectures to take advantage of new choices available today, including where their data is stored — on-premises, in the cloud or hosted by a partner.

A few years ago, it would be almost unthinkable to trust these so-called “mission- critical” systems to anything but a large, expensive, proprietary mainframe computer. But for many companies, that’s changing. In just the past 24 months, a revolution of sorts has occurred in IT. Microprocessor technology has taken another giant leap. Server software has reached a point of polished maturity. And cloud platforms are offering cost-effective access to almost limitless processing power.

“Customer needs and technological innovation are driving big changes in the market for mission-critical systems,” says Microsoft’s Simon Witts, corporate vice president of the company’s Enterprise and Partner Group. “Partners tell us all the time that customers need new solutions today and a road map for the future. The reasons they’re choosing Microsoft are simple — unparalleled choice, new innovations such as cloud capabilities, and the low total cost of ownership.”

According to Steve Steuart of Florida-based Idea Integration, when it comes to mission-critical technologies, organizations all over the world are re-thinking their architectures to take advantage of the broad array of new choices available today. Steuart is senior vice president of Idea Integration’s “legacy modernization” practice. His group migrates mission-critical applications off of mainframes and onto the Windows platform. Today he’s busier than ever, and says the biggest driver of that business is that the technology has arrived.

“I’ve got a laptop on my desk — four processors, with a 250 gigabyte, solid-state, all-memory hard drive,” says Steuart. “That type of technology cost $1 million years ago, but today it’s sitting on my desk.”

But how can desktop and server processors threaten the venerable mainframe, which surely benefits from the same advances? In the mainframe world, large workloads are measured in MIPS — millions of instructions per second. Very large companies may require a few thousand MIPS of capacity. Although those numbers were formerly only possible through a large mainframe, today powerful server boxes are available to create virtualized environments capable of hosting just about any type of workload.

According to experts such as Peter Duffell, vice president, strategic partners, at enterprise-application modernization and management company Micro Focus, while the mainframe and associated software could cost millions per year, a high-end server box today runs around $50,000 and is suitable for all but the highest volumes.

The city of Miami cuts licensing costs by 50 percent and maintains performance with a move from a mainframe-based emergency fire and medical dispatch system to the Windows platform.

“A large percentage of corporations that run mainframes can now move off the mainframes and run those same applications on servers costing hundreds of thousands of dollars less, while still meeting the service-level requirements for the business. It’ll be a long time before most organizations come close to exceeding the capabilities of today’s servers,” says Duffell.

And software is ready to take advantage of that increased horsepower. SQL Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2008 R2, Duffell says, can easily support environments requiring thousands of MIPS. And with that, he says, the economics are clear: Enterprise customers must look at migrating from mainframes to servers for loads under roughly 3,000 MIPS.

“I don’t really see any limit in terms of how far software companies can take their products to run mainframe applications,” he says. “There isn’t any ceiling anymore. It’s in effect gone away, just in the last couple of years.”

Case in point: the city of Miami. Until recently, like many large municipalities, Miami’s 911 system ran on a mainframe. Today when someone dials 911 in Miami, emergency personnel are dispatched from the system’s Windows Server. Data from the system is stored in a SQL Server database.

Steuart points out that when it comes to mission-critical systems, a 911 system pretty much trumps anything else: “You can’t just go back and redo a 911 call. There are literally lives at stake. It’s not like they’re doing thousands of transactions a second. They’re doing a couple hundred a day. But each one has to happen.”

The migration was performed by Idea Integration with help from Duffell’s Micro Focus team and Micro Focus’ mainframe application migration solutions. The city was even able to retain its Computer-Aided Dispatch application, meaning dispatchers did not require training for a new system — the screens and controls were all the same.

With the initial migration to Microsoft technologies complete, the new system is saving the city an estimated $900,000 a year that they would have spent maintaining their mainframe. Instead, that money can be spent elsewhere.

And software is ready to take advantage of that increased horsepower. SQL Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2008 R2, Duffell says, can easily support environments requiring thousands of MIPS. And with that, he says, the economics are clear: Enterprise customers must look at migrating from mainframes to servers for loads under roughly 3,000 MIPS.

“In the long term, there’s a bigger benefit than cost — all of the information that used to be locked into this mainframe can now be integrated with just about any type of system you can think of,” says Steuart.

Take fire hydrants for example. The city of Miami kept an application containing all of the maintenance and repair information for its fire hydrants, including their capacity and locations.

“Now, a 911 dispatcher or fire dispatcher can pull information on fire hydrants for a particular block — How many are available? What is the pressure capacity? Are any in maintenance?” Steuart says. “That information wasn’t readily available before, but on the Windows platform, and leveraging the cloud, you can do that.”

The city also has integrated the new system with a mobile application for medical personnel. The application collects information from the 911 response so it can be readily available to doctors as soon as an ambulance arrives at local hospitals.

Since the whole system now runs on Windows, Steuart says, there are abundant opportunities to integrate with other systems and applications: “The city can now extend the functionality of this system by introducing business intelligence, SharePoint, BizTalk. The possibilities are limitless.”

According to Duffell, although he sees customers getting excited about their options after migrating from the mainframe, many simply want to extend their applications into new areas, such as running them in the cloud via Windows Azure or on a mobile device.

“We have the ability to modernize and extend those applications to areas where they simply haven’t been able to go in the past,” he says. “The cloud is absolutely the future, and Microsoft has made it easy to migrate mainframe applications into a Windows Azure environment.”

Duffell says the cloud is picking up momentum because, again, “The math just makes too much sense. Your total cost of ownership drives toward zero. You don’t have hardware to maintain. You don’t have staff to maintain. You simply get a utility bill just like you do at home. And you don’t have all the worries about whether applications will work with each other. Azure takes care of that.”

Of course, many companies are staying on-premises for now, taking a wait-and-see approach. Duffell says that’s to be expected, but migrating from a mainframe is a good first step that IT departments would be unwise to ignore.

“The Windows environment has matured so much that there is no reason you shouldn’t consider this,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense to stay on the mainframe when you have the processing capacity available today. And Microsoft is there, ready, today. With Azure and what we’re doing here at Micro Focus, we’re there now.”

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