The TV broadcasting business lives or dies by how much advertising it sells, so IT projects that keep ad dollars flowing into coffers at Paxson Communications Corp. often get top priority.
While Paxson is not a household name, the West Palm Beach, Fla., company owns and operates the nation's largest TV broadcasting group, which includes about 65 TV stations, as well as PAX TV, a broadcast television network. It airs its own original programming which ranges from movies to sports and special events.
The nerve center of its advertising sales activity is an online transaction processing (OLTP) system. About 1,000 members of Paxson's sales team use the OLTP system to scan for more than 46,000 available advertising spots and book time on the company's TV stations.
The OLTP traffic system also links to corporate accounting applications so it can produce customer bills. The system collects data that it funnels to a data warehouse for reporting. In total, this application generates about 500 megabytes of data traffic every 15 minutes, said Scott Saunders, director of systems technology at Paxson.
"It's our number one critical application," Saunders said.
The company's database was growing so fast that to keep system performance high and downtime low, Paxson's IT staff decided to move most of its operating system software from NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 Advanced Server. The upgrade would also double the amount of RAM from 4 gigabytes to 8 gigabytes. For additional performance gains, Paxson also added CPUs and a storage network, and upgraded to MS SQL 2000 enterprise.
Paxson's 16-person in-house IT staff did most of the work, with some help from its storage vendor, EMC Corp., Saunders said. The team first spent several weeks developing a migration plan with step-by-step procedures to ensure the smooth transition of about 75% of the company's 90 servers onto Windows 2000.
The most obvious performance benefit was derived from the doubling of the server memory, which Paxson already pushes to the limit, Saunders said. He estimated that the upgrade will suffice for another two or three years, but Saunders is already envisioning a future move to .NET, or even 64-bit computing, to insure greater performance and RAM addressing. The 64-bit processors are available, and .NET will be soon, but Saunders said it's too soon to consider using them because they are unproven.
To keep an eye on system health, the company uses a monitoring software package made by NetIQ Corp., San Jose, Calif. NetIQ runs on a separate master server running a SQL database, and collects alerts from its own agents that reside on each Windows server. The software reports back to the master server if anything stretches beyond its appropriate parameters, Saunders said.
To back up the OLTP system, Paxson uses a clustering option in Windows 2000, which lets two servers view the same logical drive. By clustering a SQL Server and the OLAP server, Paxson splits up each server's workload across each server's processors when doing overnight jobs, thereby boosting overall performance, and also providing a measure of redundancy.
The servers also use a shared storage network that is integrated with Windows 2000.
The servers remaining on NT 4.0 use Microsoft's Terminal Server edition, the multi-user terminal emulation program for Windows clients. Saunders said Paxson will remain on that platform for a while because of the expense involved in buying licenses for each and every machine that must access the server.
If there is anywhere that the Windows platform falls short, licensing is the place, Saunders said. "The [new] cost of licensing will make it hard for us, particularly where terminal services are concerned," he said.
It does help that with Windows 2000, customers get two free connections to help manage servers remotely. This means Paxson's IT staff of 16 can support more servers with fewer people. Before, administrators had to go to an actual server to do anything; now they can log in from anywhere to handle an administrative task.
"It's a time saver, even if all the servers are in one area," Saunders said.
The remote management features are also useful for disaster-recovery operations. Though the company has not experienced a network crash, it did use the feature one time to shift data from servers in Tampa to servers at an off-site recovery location in Atlanta to avoid an approaching hurricane.
It's hard to know if the use of Windows 2000 has any impact on Paxson's bottom line, but the software does offer some measurable improvement. "Selling a spot is a salesman's issue, but at least when they need to access the system it's more reliable," Saunders said. "So I'd say [employees] are better supported now."