Tassie retailer rejects cloud for mainframe
Crowd-sourced security testing provides "an extra level of comfort". Photo: Jim Rice
Tasmanian retailer Coogans has bucked the trend towards cloud computing and upgraded its Unisys mainframe systems for its mission-critical applications and online infrastructure.
The retailer is one of only a half-dozen organisations in Australia to use Unisys' mainframe systems and has been a loyal client of the IT provider and its predecessor, Burroughs, since before 1965.
Over one weekend recently, Coogans deployed one mainframe - the latest Unisys Libra 460s - at each of its Hobart and Moonah locations in Tasmania and migrated its real-time custom production application, called COSFAR (or Coogans Online Stock, Financial And Rental System), which was written in 1992 and is the centrepiece of the retailer's IT architecture.
''As the whole company is run using a real-time application - every aspect of the company is fed into this application - should we have a disastrous crash of our production machine, we can actually switch, probably within about one hour, to our DR [disaster recovery] environment and carry on going,'' said IT manager Peter Jandera. ''Because they are completely separate we also have an offline backup of our entire environment.''
While globally, mainframe market share is in gradual decline and many in the IT market believe mainframe computers are dying out and either virtualised environments on x86 servers or a cloud computing service is the way of the future, mainframe market presence from the likes of IBM and Unisys, and Fujitsu in Japan, remain strong and a viable platform for many industries.
After IBM updated its mainframe line in 2010, mainframe vendors in Australia exceeded their highest yearly revenues in the six months to March 2011 to more than $115 million, according to IDC data.
In Australia there are about 60 mainframe users among large banks, government departments, retailers and airlines.
Internationally, retailers such as Sears and Tesco still use mainframes.
Coogans has its production mainframe at its Moonah store and a hot disaster recovery machine 10 kilometres away at its Hobart office, linked by a wireless wide area network with connectivity redundancy provided by a virtual private network (VPN) link over the internet.
This DR setup has been in place since 2005 but has not been needed. Jandera said the operating environment has never crashed.
The company is however aware of the challenge of skills transfer to the next generation of workers with demand for mainframe skills decreasing, so are the number of workers with updated skills.
When asked Coogans why not adopt cloud computing and leave most of the infrastructure management and investment to service providers while enjoying flexibility, Jandera is adamant it is not suitable to his business.
"Who guarantees the last mile? Cloud is some machine you do not necessarily know where that is providing you with the infrastructure," Jandera said.
"But how do you get your data to and from that cloud? You get it via the internet, don't you. Now the internet comes through a piece of cable in our premises to the first point which is either a telephone exchange or a point of presence somewhere. But who guarantees that last mile? If that proverbial person with the spade cuts through that cable we are dead. We are a real time system - we need it for every minute of the working day. We are dead if that cable is cut."
Whilst Coogans' main clientele shops at the bricks and mortar store, the company now has an online site. But unlike other retailers where the move online is considered a make or break affair, the Tasmanian retailer has a different view.
"We have been in Tasmania since 1876 as a retailer so most people in Tasmania ... know us as that bricks and mortar store. Yes we have to have a web presence because that is the modern day thing. But it is a large cost for a very small return. There are a lot of people who still don't want to go near websites."