SBT Accounting Systems, Inc. is the world's largest database accounting-system vendor and Microsoft's largest database applications partner. Since its inception in the early 1980s, SBT has sold 0.5 million accounting modules worldwide. Several thousand dealers serve as MIS consultants to their clients. Product knowledge carries its premium across the board and down the line.
The Value of Reconnaissance
About a year ago, management decided to convert SBT's network from Novell NetWare to a Windows NT multiple-
server platform. SBT runs its business on its own software so the company would run completely on the new platform. All technical and sales support, as well as telemarketing and customer-contact tracking, access and update system databases in real-time. Furthermore, every line item in these categories back to 1987 is on-line--in some cases, back to 1984. To validate the systems it uses, SBT needs to run ahead of the market. "Where SBT is now, customers will be in one or two years," Bob Davies, company founder and CEO, said.
The copious amount of Novell-based data and the 250 workstations attached to the network placed an incredible demand on MIS. To tackle the migration, Davies brought in Jerry Shaver, who had experience in both NT and NetWare technologies. Shaver had recently orchestrated a smaller NT rollout for a San Francisco law firm. Although Davies had originally hoped the project could be completed in about a month, Shaver designed an orderly conversion process that would take just under five months--a pace the MIS veteran still considers aggressive.
A Brief Look Back
A departure from Corvus (SBT's first try with networks) and the move to Novell occurred in 1984 due to management's dissatisfaction with the former system's inability to handle multiuser database applications effectively. SBT stayed with Novell until 1986, when the company outgrew the then-current Novell technology.
Ease of administering multiple servers inspired Davies to move SBT to a 3Com system. However, over two to three years, according to Davies, Novell surpassed 3Com technology so SBT returned to Novell. Davies recalls that switching back to Novell was simply the best choice for administering SBT's many different files on multiple servers. The company's stake in real-time management information made an uninterrupted flow of data and maximum throughput necessary.
The Conversion Plan
Migrating SBT's servers to the NT environment took just less than five months. Throughout the conversion process, is was essential to maintain the existing level of server availability. Given the number of network users and the scale of the endeavor, access couldn't be interrupted. Shaver focused on access, reliability, and systems integrity and the ways in which those issues affect completely adopting NT.
A look at the project plan reveals the flow and the order of the steps in each phase. The prerequisite and most important phase, according to Shaver, was to establish a robust network foundation. To do this, he had to identify existing traffic patterns and try to prevent bandwidth saturation by creating a segmented architecture with a high-speed Ethernet switch at the center. "In anticipation of continued growth, it was imperative that we isolate traffic onto defined segments instead of allowing all traffic to flow to all parts of our network," Shaver said.
The goal was to interface all the servers directly to the Ethernet switch with each server on its own private 10MB per second (MBps) 10BaseT connection. Administrators also connected their hubs directly to the switch. To avoid performance losses, Shaver said, the NT servers needed high-speed access to their clients and to each other in their own domain: This required an uncluttered channel. For future projects, Shaver plans a second, domain-exclusive 100MBps subnetwork that only the tape backup unit and the NT Servers within the domain will share so they can communicate without competition.
The plan itself was created with Microsoft Project software. From beginning to end, the conversion went pretty much as planned. There was one glitch, however; a lengthy wait for a key piece of software--Microsoft's File and Print Services for NetWare (FPNW). Converting from an already established set of servers clearly involved more than just plunking down a new domain: FPNW was the key to a swift implementation because it eliminated the need to reconfigure every PC on the network with each server conversion. "FPNW allowed us to fool each desktop into believing it was still a client to its Novell system even though the NT servers were actually serving it," Shaver said. FPNW freed Shaver from having to visit all the PCs in the company before converting them to Windows 95 clients. He could replace an existing NetWare server with an NT server, and the desktop wouldn't know a thing. Not wanting to slow down the conversion progress, Shaver and his crew began with a beta version of FPNW and were completely satisfied with its performance.
Day to Day
The first steps in site preparation were to specify the base equipment, evaluate site compatibility, and price the modifications. After site modifications were ordered, Shaver could plan segment boundaries at the same time he planned server-based file redeployment. Hub connections were designed according to anticipated traffic patterns. (Shaver also fortified the IS center against power outages and the ever-present San Francisco Bay-area earthquake threat.) The stage was set to redeploy the Novell-based files and network services.
Preparing the network infrastructure took about a month. It involved pricing, ordering, and installing the Ethernet switch and enhancing the network into six hub-based segments. Configuring the hardware and loading the network software were phase one.
Acquiring and installing the primary domain controller and one file server constituted phase two. Adding the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) interfaces, automatic paging service, Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) configuration, backup/recovery testing, and contingency planning were part of phase two as well. The final steps in preparing the primary domain controller were to load the administrative software and configure the initial accounts.
In phase three, Shaver ported the services off one of the NetWare production servers onto the initial NT server to free a Novell server. FPNW made this process much easier. Shaver pulled the server and added memory and a faster Ethernet board. He also added a RAID Level 5 controller and a 10GB RAID disk array. He then loaded NT Server onto the server to complete the metamorphosis. Then, the next NT server was ready to join the domain and assume the responsibilities of another Novell machine. This process continued until all the servers had been converted.
The final phase of the plan is to put Windows 95 on each desktop. Then, SBT administrators will be able to turn off FPNW. SBT will have a comprehensive Windows environment, from the desktop to the server.
A Window on the Future
When asked what could have been done better, Shaver recalled one unanticipated challenge: With the previous system, there had been a great imbalance in file allocation. Balancing the existing files was tedious because of the reliance SBT had on an inflexible system of custom-application file locations specified in code or in multiple configuration files. Some third-party software and batch files used hard-coded references to disk drives and directories instead of the more easily maneuvered Universal Naming Service (UNC) specifications. "When making a huge server transition effort, you'd like to structure services in a balanced way," Shaver said. "But hard-coded pointers required another huge effort to fix. In retrospect, we're glad we didn't just duplicate the existing structure into the new environment--but it was very tempting."
Shaver said he believes that SBT's MIS staff will be most effective in an NT environment. Administrators can focus their technical expertise instead of diluting it among Windows, UNIX, NetWare, etc. Of the environments available to SBT, NT is the most easily managed and will run all the company's necessary tasks, Shaver said.
Davies said that NT is the appropriate technology for SBT's current needs and will become the dominant system, even as a server platform for the Internet. UNIX provides the right tools, he said, but to maximize the platform you must place "building" on high priority. Ultimately, for speed and simplicity, Davies stands behind NT for its ease of use, ease of administration, and reliability.
Davies is glad to have the conversion completed as SBT nears delivery of an upscale client/server version of its product line. The new version promises growth and acceleration, two potentials he thinks will be best handled by a Windows NT environment.
|SBT Accounting Systems: 800-944-1000|