Good Grades for Converting to 64 Bits

Production Line at Koehler
Production Line at Koehler

Paper is patient, according to an old proverb. But there’s no trace of that wisdom in a modern paper plant like the Koehler plant in Kehl at the Rhine. With a speed of 1,500 meters per minute, the pulp belt runs with thunderous noise through the colossal rolls of a production line. But things in the IT department of the 1,800-strong company that specializes carbonless paper for multipart forms and decor papers didn’t run so fluidly in the recent past. “The response times in SAP R/3 left a lot to be desired, and the employees found the interruptions burdensome,” reports Alexander Fischer, the team leader of IT Basis at the company.
The performance deficits primarily involved the symptoms of a basic problem in the infrastructure. The previous release (4.6C) of SAP R/3 ran on Windows 2000 and the usual 32-bit Intel platform. The platform inevitably constrained the use of memory: 32-bit operating systems can address a maximum of 4 GB of memory. Applications with large databases, which are typical in the SAP environment, had to swap out data from a specific size to much slower fixed disks, and the application’s performance suffered. The numbers showed the enormous discrepancy between the size of the database and the available working memory. At Koehler, the SAP data memory was based upon a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and involved 160 GB.
In addition, Koehler was evaluating a strategy of unifying the operating systems in the entire company to client/server technology. Windows was the only option because the company had already made good experience with Microsoft products. “We don’t have any developers, but we do have 14 IT employees who have comprehensive knowledge of Windows, which is why we focus on standard software that does not require any modifications,” explains Fischer. The announcement of the new generation of 64-bit products by SAP and Microsoft came in handy for the company. SAP announced that SAP R/3 Enterprise 4.7 would be based upon 64-bit technology; Microsoft announced the simultaneous appearance of the 64-bit Windows Server 2003 (with a 32-bit variant) for the middle of 2003. Even the theoretical values of the 64-bit platform promised a significant improvement in performance – the almost infinite address area of the working memory offered the ideal conditions for database applications.

Simplified user management

The Koehler team had its first conversations with SAP and Microsoft in December 2002. Careful preparation was especially important because none of the parties had any experience with productive operations of the new platform. Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Realtech, a company specializing in SAP solutions, were also involved as additional partners. Koehler also decided upon HP as the hardware partner because the manufacturer could deliver the desired four-way computers based upon Intel’s IA-64 processor.
In addition to the platform change, Koehler added two other ambitious objectives to the project. User management was to be coupled with SAP Human Resources (SAP HR), and single sign-on was to be implemented throughout the entire company. Simplified user management benefits both the HR department and the IT organization. The connection of SAP HR to the Windows directory service, Active Directory, allowed the company to combine previously separate work steps into one procedure. For example, previously, a new hire had to be created in the personnel database and in IT. If the data had to be changed or if the employee left the company, two operations in two locations were required to reflect the new reality. With the support of Realtech, Koehler realized an automatic alignment.
Single sign-on takes cumbersome worksteps away from users during authentication in the system and in programs. A single password is now sufficient to gain access to the company’s applications. “Our employees were already used to a simple, single logon from their experience with the Internet. That’s what we wanted to enable in Windows and SAP R/3,” reports Fischer.

Conversion to SAP R/3 Enterprise took precedence

The conversion project went into high gear in August of 2003; the new system environment was set to go live on October 4. As expected in these kinds of projects, the conversion had to deal with unforeseen problems. For example, a storage system from Hewlett Packard delivered much too low throughput times in the 64-bit environment. However, no problems developed under Windows 2000. After much effort service technicians finally found the cause and repaired it with a reworked fiber channel controller.
Things did not run smoothly with the SAP R/3 release at first, as Karl Haas, database specialist at Koehler and a co-leader of the project reports. “We were unable to download the new version with all its patches and release levels in the configuration of the SAP system installed at our company. But SAP supported us well and was able to deliver an error-free version at the right time.” Ultimately, the energetic support of the IT suppliers was to thank for getting the conversion up and running as planned and on time.
Haas acknowledges that the project hung in the balance. “The conversion to SAP R/3 4.7 was critical for us,” says Haas. If everything had not gone smoothly by the go-live date, the company would have first updated SAP R/3 on the existing 32-bit platform and realized the complete conversion to 64-bit SAP R/3, Windows Server 2003, and SQL Server 2000 later on.

Keeping the plant running: the first commandment

Storage of Rolled Paper
Storage of Rolled Paper

The IT department had good reasons for being careful: the company’s first priority is the unobstructed production of paper. If the system failed, production would have to stop for three hours, explains Fischer. It would take five days to recover from a complete shutdown of a paper machine. One particularly painful issue with shutdowns is the removal of rolled paper from the machines. During a process jam, the 20-ton rolls of carbonless paper have to be hoisted onto the floor. The pressure from the weight of a roll can affect the roll within a fraction of a second, making the product unusable.

Orientation toward standard products

An important pillar of the design of operational security at Koehler is its orientation to standard products. That’s why the company tuned its processes to the solution when it implemented SAP R/3 Enterprise and avoided complicated system modifications. This approach not only saves costs, but also was confirmed from another viewpoint. As Fisher emphasizes, “Looking back, we determined that we have to examine business processes once in a while thanks to this strategy.”
The consistent migration of the Windows platform also exists within this context. The availability of 32- and 64-bit Windows servers now allows Koehler to operate the SAP central instance and the database in a higher-performance environment. Several remaining 32-bit servers in the company are still running – without additional investments in new hardware. Administration is simple because of the uniform operating system. And the conversion has created a foundation for additional projects in the paper company. The company has already implemented SAP for Discrete Industry Mill Paper; SAP Business Information Warehouse (SAP BW) is now in the testing phase.

The newest technologies are also affordable for midsize companies

Authoritative support for an IT strategy focused on innovation comes from Bruno Schwelling, the chief financial officer of the company. “Our project shows that the newest technologies are also affordable for midsize companies,” says Schwelling. It has always helped to lower costs and increate productivity. And Schwelling makes another important point. “Modern IT motivates employees. In tough times like these, that has a positive affect on helping an employee think of ‘us’ instead of ‘me.’ ”

Wolfgang Miedl
Wolfgang Miedl