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For years, a successful actuarial services company relied on a vital financial application that ran on Alpha hardware—a server well past its end-of-life date. To modernize its infrastructure with as little risk as possible, the company turned to Stromasys Inc., experts in cross-platform server virtualization solutions. In a matter of days, the company was running its mission-critical application on Azure. Soon after, it began to offer the software as a service (SaaS) to other companies, turning the formerly high-maintenance legacy software into a growing profit center.


The challenge of the not-so-modern mainframe

Aging servers are vulnerable servers. Stromasys was founded in 1998 with a mission to help companies running core applications on servers from an earlier generation, such as SPARC, VAX, Alpha, and HP 3000. With headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina, Stromasys is a wholly owned subsidiary of Stromasys SA in Geneva, Switzerland. Its virtualization solutions are used by top organizations worldwide.


Stromasys developed a niche in the computer industry by recognizing the need for specialized virtualization environments that could replace servers nearing their end of life. Stromasys solutions can host applications designed for Solaris, VMS, Tru64 UNIX, and MPE/iX operating systems. By rehosting applications on Azure using emulation software—known as a lift-and-shift migration—organizations can safely phase out legacy hardware in a matter of days and immediately begin taking advantage of the scalability and flexibility of cloud computing.


The financial services industry has been among the first to adopt Stromasys server emulation solutions. A lift-and-shift approach is a quick, safe way to move legacy workloads to the cloud. Actuarial services are all about risk assessment, and the Stromasys customer knew it needed to reduce the risk associated with running mission-critical software on a decades-old Alpha system.


The legendary Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the AlphaServer in 1994. Even after the system was officially retired in 2007, organizations around the world continued to trust the Alpha’s underlying OpenVMS and Tru64 UNIX operating systems for their proven stability. Stromasys saw an opportunity, and in 2006, it began offering an Alpha hardware emulation solution, Charon-AXP. Today, HP recognizes Charon-AXP as a valid Alpha replacement platform to run OpenVMS or Tru64.


The actuarial services company had kept its AlphaServer running through the years with help from user groups that located vintage hardware components. However, parts can be hard to find for any classic machine—from cars to computers.


“Our business had exclusively involved on-premises solutions,” explains Thomas Netherland, global head of Alliances & Channels at Stromasys. “So we were surprised and intrigued when the customer opted for the cloud. They simply did not want to be in the IT infrastructure business.”


The actuarial services company wanted to take advantage of the scalability, security, and other benefits that come with Azure. This is when Stromasys decided as a company to get serious about offering cloud-ready solutions.


“Stromasys solutions on Azure extend the lives of mission-critical legacy applications.”
– Thomas Netherland: global head of Alliances & Channels, Stromasys Inc.


Hardware emulation in a virtual environment

Stromasys and Microsoft worked together to find a solution for the actuarial services customer. Stromasys proposed using Charon-AXP, one of a family of legacy system cross-platform hypervisors. With this emulator, the customer could phase out its aging and increasingly expensive hardware and replace it quickly and safely with an enterprise-grade, virtual Alpha environment on Azure that uses an industry-standard x86 platform.


According to Dave Clements, a systems engineer at Stromasys, Charon means no risky migration projects. “There are no changes to the original software, operating system, or layered products—so no need for source code and no application recompile,” he says. In addition, the actuarial services company didn’t have to worry about recertifying its application, because the legacy code is untouched.


Charon-AXP creates a virtual Alpha environment on an Azure virtual machine (VM), which is used to isolate and manage the resources for a specific application on a single instance. Charon-AXP presents an Alpha hardware interface to the original Alpha software, which cannot detect a difference. After the user programs and data are copied to the VM, the legacy application continues to run unchanged.


The engineers didn’t know how well Charon-AXP would perform in the cloud, so they set up a proof-of-solution test. “We wanted to ensure that the Azure infrastructure processor speed was enough to compensate for the additional CPU overhead introduced by Charon,” says Netherland. Turns out, it wasn’t a problem. The clock speed of most legacy systems is on the order of hundreds of megahertz (MHz), as opposed to the several gigahertz (GHz) offered by VMs on Azure. Performance was the same or better.


The entire migration process, including the proof of solution test, took only two weeks.


The following image demonstrates the architectural differences:





“We like Azure because of the high processor speeds that are available and for the support available from Microsoft 
and our reseller community.”
– Dave Clements: systems engineer, Stromasys Inc.

Architecture on Azure

The original application ran on a DEC Alpha ES40 server with four CPUs (1 GHz), 16 GB of RAM, and 400 GB of storage. The new architecture on Azure includes Charon-AXP for Windows on a VM with eight CPUs (3 GHz), 32 GB of RAM, and 500 GB of storage.


During proof-of-solution testing, Stromasys engineers created multiple virtual network interfaces to provide separate networks paths, depending on the type of user. One path is provisioned for Windows only, to give IT managers access for host configuration and management tasks. The other network path provides OpenVMS users and administrators access to the OpenVMS operating system and applications. This gives users access to their applications through their organization’s preferred type of connection—for example, Secure Shell (SSH), a virtual private network (VPN), or a public IP address.


“Two network interfaces keep the connections separate, which is our preference for security and ease of use,” explains Sandra Levitt, an engineer at Stromasys. “It lets users connect the way they’re used to.” A best practice is to configure the VM running Charon behind a jumpbox or a service, such as Azure Bastion, which uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to provide access without any exposure through public IP addresses.


For this customer, the engineers set up a VPN to accelerate communications between the legacy operating system running in the company’s datacenter and Charon on Azure. Users connect to the VM running the application using remote desktop protocol (RDP).

The new architecture also improves the company’s business continuity. Azure Backup backs up the VMs, and the internal OpenVMS backup agents protect the application.


The following image demonstrates the Azure architecture:




“Our relationship with Microsoft started with this customer, and now we work closely with the Azure migration services team. 
This partnership has really helped us succeed with our customers.”
– Dave Clements: systems engineer, Stromasys Inc.

A legacy is reinvented as SaaS

Before working with this customer, Stromasys hadn’t ventured far into the cloud. Running Charon-AXP on Azure showed Stromasys and the customer how a lift-and-shift migration can transform a legacy application. Azure provides a modern platform for security with storage that can expand and contract as the company’s usage varies, while the pay-as-you-go pricing makes Azure cost effective.


After the legacy application was running in a Charon-AXP emulator on Azure, the actuarial services company began offering its solution as a service to other financial companies. In effect, the company reinvented its mainframe application as a SaaS option. Two major insurance companies immediately signed up for this service.


“Their focus shifted from managing the hardware and software to just managing their real business,” says Clements. “All that without touching the legacy code.”


“Azure allows our customers to take full advantage of the benefits of a modern infrastructure.” 
Dave Clements: systems engineer, Stromasys Inc.





Brought to you by Dr. Ware, Microsoft Office 365 Silver Partner, Charleston SC.

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