Tech Order Up
When Patrick Piccininno stepped up to the counter of IHOP in 2003, it wasnt for a short stack—it was for Linux, with a side of cost savings.
Piccininno is vice president of IT at the restaurant chain, based in Glendale, Calif. He recently spoke with eWEEK Staff Writer Brian Prince about his role in the companys migration to Linux and the construction of IHOPs data center, composed of roughly 65 percent Linux systems and 35 percent Windows systems.
Piccininno also discussed the role IT plays in IHOPs acquisition plans, as well as the changing role of the IT executive and the importance of focusing on transformational initiatives that will move the business forward.
How has the role of the IT executive changed?
Its been well-documented in industry circles whereby CIOs have … fought for their seat at the table. It comes [down] to being part of the corporate strategy and governance body [and] working with the CEO and the rest of the executive team as equal partners.
I think the more that CIOs can put their technology hat aside and focus on what it is that the business needs to be successful—and focus on transformational initiatives whereby they can help the organization have platforms, systems and processes that they can feel confident in to be able to achieve the desired business result—[the better]. But that type of discussion is not even a factor. I mean, our executive team does not need to worry whether our infrastructure and processes will scale or be flexible, based on changes in business strategy.
I will give you a very real-world example of this. We are right in the middle of working on our integration strategy. We recently announced our intent to buy Applebees, and one of the things that we, in the IT world, are focused on from an integration point of view is being able to leverage some of these very scalable and flexible architecture decisions that we have been making over the past several years to give ourselves the opportunity to bring disparate systems and environments to our … data center and application infrastructure.
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I know that our environment, and the way we have constructed it, gives us that flexibility to go out and buy a $2 billion company the way we are and be able to drive costs out of the acquired organization, to be able to bring them into an architecture that is largely right-sized and optimized to be cost-effective and highly scalable with low total cost of ownership, with hardware and support costs. That, to me, is testament that the role of the CIO is, in fact, part of our strategic tool kit to give us that ability to quickly assimilate and integrate organizations. So were very, very proud of the environment that we have.
What led to CIOs becoming more involved in the corporate strategy and governance decision-making process?
The integration and reliance on technology in business have caused this shift to accelerate. Most companies cannot stay competitive without driving efficiencies and improving business intelligence through better access to business data. In addition, Sarbanes-Oxley and General Computing Controls have brought IT governance and risk management to the forefront. Without the CIO in the conversation, business decisions can prove to be [less than optimal] and overall business effectiveness diminished.
You mentioned the importance of having the type of flexible architecture that can allow you to buy and integrate an organization such as Applebees. From a strategic standpoint, how do you go about building and maintaining that type of infrastructure?
There are several guiding principles that we adhere to when building and maintaining flexible infrastructure systems. We look to virtualize—using a product like VMware—all server systems; implement Intel-based blade server hardware only; and implement open-source, Linux-based systems where possible. [We] architect technology solutions to minimize data center requirements; adhere to Moores Law of computing, which has proved [that] technology performance and size requirements are moving in inverse directions; [and] leverage open-source and innovative software solutions running on low-cost hardware, reducing the need for physical space while maximizing computer power and scalability.
The core strategy of this operating model, virtualization, has allowed IHOP to reduce physical space and electrical requirements by over 30 percent while delivering 50 percent more computing capacity to the enterprise.
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When it comes to transformational initiatives, how do you persuade the company to make the type of massive investment such changes often require? Is it always strictly a dollars-and-cents conversation?
Dollars and cents are always a good place to start. However, the strategic implication of these decisions helps drive a scalable and flexible architecture for growth. By focusing on the above-mentioned principles, the IT organizations ability to address future strategies and business requirements is more a function of virtual capacity and technology evolution than of physical capacity. Massive investment is no longer required.
Lets talk about the move to Linux. What type of Linux did you move to?
It was Red Hat Linux that we adopted. When [I] came to IHOP, we were actually doing kind of a greenfield data center construction project. We were really trying to develop a model by which we could drive very low cost of ownership plus give us long-term flexibility in terms of hardware and software purchases and to keep things as commoditized on the back end as possible. And a bunch of the guys we brought in, some of whom we had worked with in the past, had a good depth of understanding of the Linux environment.
This was about the time in 2003 when I think there was a lot of very positive press coming out in regard to the Linux environment. In addition to the data center construction initiative, we were looking into ERP [enterprise resource planning] vendors to fill a number of gaps in our application infrastructure, and we were working with Oracle at the time in addition to evaluating a couple other players.
As part of the value proposition, Oracle invited us to visit their on-demand data center in Austin, Texas. And when we traveled there, I thought it was very interesting when we looked out over … this floor of Dell servers all running Linux. I think it became very evident to all of us at IHOP that Oracle looked like they were embracing this strategy.
It was really pretty funny because over in the corner was this one lone Sun E10K box that looked like it had been moved to the side just to continue to provide some level of support for one of the on-demand customers, who insisted on Sun Solaris. But the rest of the data center was all Linux-based, and that for us kind of sealed the deal.
I read that you experienced a 20 percent savings by moving from Unix to Linux.
I think [what youre referring to] was a comparison to the Red Linux support contract we were paying for, versus the Oracle Unbreakable Linux support that we ended up switching to about eight or nine months ago. So, the overall cost of ownership—Linux versus a traditional Unix-based solution—I dont think weve put pen to paper on that, although we have anecdotally looked at the cost of other data center construction projects that we had done in the past, and we believe that for this particular data center, for equivalent processing capacity, we probably ended up spending one-fifth of the cost of a traditional build-out of an equivalent Sun Solaris environment, and this was in 2003 dollars.
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What issues did you face? Was it what you expected?
I think we were pleasantly surprised by how smooth the implementation went. With the implementation of a standards-based operating system like Linux—open source—there was a little bit of hesitation … because we really didnt have that breadth of experience in dealing with those vendors [such as Dell and Oracle] and understanding exactly how they would support that new environment. But I think one of the things we were very surprised by was how seamless and smooth an implementation it was. Any of the horror stories people might have been thinking about [in terms of] an open-source operating system like Linux, and whether or not enterprise-class vendors would provide the same level of support, I think all those notions were dispelled very early on. We had very good success with it.
In addition, not only did we implement our new Oracle E-Business Suite on Linux, but we also migrated many of our other legacy applications, including our Lawson ERP environment. We implemented certain elements of the Oracle E-Business Suite, but we kept our ERP financials, payroll and HR applications on Lawson.
So even with Lawson, for the back end, we unplugged [IBM] Informix, which was the relational database we were running Lawson on, [and] plugged in Oracle running on Linux. From a back-end point of view, we were able to swap out the entire infrastructure to Linux. The only reason we didnt migrate the actual applications on the Lawson side is because … they didnt support Linux. I think we ended up moving it to a Microsoft-based application server.
So, at the end of the day, the best part of all this is that it worked. It worked very well. Scalability has never been an issue, operability has never been an issue, and the enterprise vendors we have partnered with have completely embraced the environment. That was all kind of capped off when Oracle came out and actually took over support of our operating environment in addition to the apps on the database.
What are some of the things you would recommend IT executives think about when considering such a migration?
From the perspective of what business should be thinking about if they are evaluating a conversion to Linux, first and foremost, make sure that the vendor partners you are working with, or are planning to work with, have fully embraced the environment. Thats key—understanding [whether vendors will] be able to provide the same level of support for Linux as they do for other operating systems.
I think from a skill-set perspective for the staff, there are obviously differences in every Unix-based derivative, but the teams that are good Unix-based administrators took to the Linux environment very, very quickly.
It wasnt like I had to go out and retrofit our system admin staff to bring in the Linux experts because we had a bunch of Solaris experts. It truly was a very quick learning curve for these guys. Most of them loaded it up on their notebook computers or desktop systems. They got familiar with some of the nuances, and they quickly picked it up. So if youve got good technology guys, the differences are not that large. I think the only other thing we thought of was just making sure we knew what we were getting into—going into it with our eyes wide open.
I never dreamed it would go as easily as it did. I would like to think it was because we had a well-thought-out strategy in that we picked the right vendors to partner with.
Photo of Patrick Piccininno on Page 1 by Kelli Baxendale Photography.
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