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Sage says MS Datacenter was wise choice

Sage Telecom is a new-enough company not to be saddled with legacy systems so, with a wide-open choice for a data center operating system, it opted for Microsoft's Datacenter Server.

Sage Telecom Inc. was a brand new company in the mid-1990s, so it had no old computer applications sitting on legacy hardware to worry about. This meant that, when it came to choosing an operating system on which to run its business, it had the pick of the crop.

The competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) opted to place its single customer care database on SQL Server and the data center version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. Other CLECs spent millions on packaged software and have multiple databases with gateways between them, said Peter Basta, director of information systems at Sage, which is based in Allen, Texas. "Our customer information is in one database, on one program," he said.

Sage resells local and long-distance carrier service at a monthly price that's about $5 less than that of Southwestern Bell, the local incumbent carrier. Sage currently has about 500,000 customers, Basta said.

When the company was first getting started, money was so tight that some employees brought their own home PCs to work to save money. "I didn't have the money in the budget for Unix, so I decided from the first day that I wouldn't bring in [Linux or Unix]," Basta said.

No legacy systems to contend with

Of course, Sage was unusual in that it had no applications that needed to interoperate when it was developing its database. Any company that has made any investment in technology during the past 20 years will have a variety of computer operating systems, and Java is a great way to connect them. So for anyone other than a new enterprise, "rip and replace" is not an option, said Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass.

"The one thing that Windows won't provide is widespread interoperability," Schadler said. "That's why Microsoft is making such a strong commitment to Web services and data standards, so customers can get to those old systems."

Starting from scratch made making a commitment to Windows easier. Basta first ran Windows NT Advanced Server, which was overtaxed with only 8 GB of data in memory. At that point, Microsoft released Datacenter Server, its operating system for the data center, so Sage was able to upgrade to this industrial-strength version of Windows.

Since few established businesses are willing to place critical applications on Windows if they work on Unix or Linux, Microsoft seeks out companies like Sage, which can be showcases for this high-end version of the Windows operating system.

Windows-trained staff cheaper

Often, when a large company doesn't have Linux or Unix in-house, IT executives say it's less costly to find and pay for a Windows-trained support team. Tony Ledbetter, director of information technology at Sage, repeated conventional wisdom that it's easier and cheaper to find IT professionals who are trained on Windows as opposed to those who are mainframe or Unix specialists.

Sage does have one application running on Linux, but not because it's inappropriate for Windows. The company's access-carrier billing application, which sits atop an Oracle Corp. database, was performing too slowly, so Basta decided to test it on Linux to see if he could boost performance. It didn't, but since the software was stable, he said he decided that it wouldn't be worth it to move it once again, so he left it on Linux.

The biggest benefit of using Windows Datacenter is that it gives Sage the ability to move beyond the eight CPUs and 8 GB of memory limitations. The company added an ES7000 server made by Unisys Corp., which sells the bulk of servers that run Windows Datacenter.

Powerful hardware necessary

And the drawbacks? Basta can't really think of any, other than the fact that by using this software you have to add more powerful hardware. Sage is currently testing a 64-bit Unisys server and plans to move by the end of this year from a 32-bit to a 64-bit architecture, which will run 64-bit SQL Server and Datacenter.

Basta declined to reveal how much the company saves, but he said most of the savings come from having one database and by keeping the technical-staff headcount low. The company has 45 employees, between its information technology and information system departments. There are only two people working on the servers. "I attribute that to having a Windows environment," he said.

Ledbetter said Microsoft's desire to get customers to sign onto its Software Assurance licensing plan itself may be responsible for some of the pushback from customers who are reluctant to choose Windows for their data center.

"Microsoft sometimes forces businesses down a path they may or may not want to go," he said. "It's a concern for them as well as for us. But Windows has met our needs, so we are willing to go down that path."


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