Group S

From your proprietary Operating System to Open Source

System Solutions and HP offer Group S technology evolution and continuity

When Group S, the human resources management specialist, got the idea of changing its IT architecture, the technological and human aspects were entirely inseparable. HP and System Solutions had fully understood this.

Social affairs were made more complicated, in the Thirties, by an eruption of social institutions, with their organising texts becoming less stable as an unwelcome result. Since that period, the corporate world has been confronted with increasingly numerous and more complicated administrative procedures.

Some directors of the Brabant Association of Public & Private General Works Contractors were aware of these difficulties and of the impediments to growth that they can represent. They joined forces in 1936 for the purpose of finding a solution to this complicated and tricky problem. The idea of Group S was born... to help companies to find their path through the ever-changing maze of administrative mysteries. Since then, Group S’s assignments have gradually become more opulent, in such a way that it has now become a preferential multi-service partner of various companies for the management of human resources. The main thrusts of those assignments, carried out by the organisation’s nine hundred or so employees in the service of self-employed operators and companies, are the defence and protection of employers, the protection and motivation of employees, human resources management as such, and its business window (‘guichet d’entreprise’ - Formalis).

But, moving from the corporate aspect to the human dimension was not enough. Group S soon realised that the technological aspect was essential. Manu Lorant, ITC Manager at Group S:

«The complexity and the growing number of administrative procedures, the reaction speed required by companies, the permanent social developments and the technologies available to our clients, mean that we have to be at the forefront of IT progress, and have to guide our deliberations and our actions towards the future all the time».


Technology at the Source

Originally, Group S’s first IT programmes were based on a Bull mainframe. The need for flexibility in meeting both the clients’ needs and the social security requirements had gradually impelled Group S to migrate towards a more modern architecture, one that was better suited to its business needs.

Manu Lorant: «In 1984, we had chosen VMS on a VAX server (at that time, OpenVMS was not yet being talked about), because this system offered one of the first relational databases (RDB), a binary compatibility throughout the entire range and the first elements of what was going to become the «Open» world, thanks to the X25 technology in particular. Group S started with the development of a new payroll application with, already at that time, a client/server approach (personal computers, relational databases, and so on) in which the workstations (personal computers) communicated with the database server (RDB on VAX) via Belgacom’s X25 (DCS) network. With effect from that period, VMS then OpenVMS quickly became essential in the IT culture of Group S. We particularly liked this operating system’s quality, stability and robustness, as well as the reliability of its clusters. Capitalising on these assets, we quickly put together an in-house team of Systems Engineers who had complete mastery of OpenVMS».

This IT architecture has been maintained until today via the subsequent developments of OpenVMS and RDB. RDB has been replaced by Oracle and OpenVMS has gradually become the exclusive support of all our critical Oracle databases. Since 2007, the IT infrastructure of Group S has mainly been constituted by two OpenVMS clusters consisting of HP 76XX servers, connected on SAN (EVA 4000, EVA 4100).

A few months ago, a combination of strategic and operational elements called for a revision of the Operating System strategy with regard to the database servers. «The increase of our client portfolio as well as the increase of the client services that we offer (immediate pay calculation, supply of «self-service» functionalities to our client’s members of staff, and so on and so forth), obliged us to consider the replacement of the existing servers because they were gradually approaching saturation and could no longer be upgraded. In addition, we could see that OpenVMS was being developed at a slower pace. Lastly, Oracles’ announcement that they were relinquishing all developments on the Itanium platform succeeded in convincing us that we had to switch to something else».

But, to paraphrase Corneille, as data processing can be young, capable and courageous without having to wait to be old, the decision-making process in this respect cannot afford any lengthy equivocation.


Technology as a Resource

So therefore, the Group S’s IT specialists were looking for a solution which had to be tried and tested but which also had to have an eye on the future. Moreover, «the company’s overall IT strategy had to be respected», the ICT boss added: «Our strategy is in particular based on the use of an intentionally limited number of technologies. This is an essential component of our cost control. Using a limited number of technologies enables the ninety or so members of our ITC Department to have complete mastery of the ones that they use. Until now, in terms of O.S., we have limited ourselves to Windows Server and OpenVMS. Replacing the latter with Linux enables us to adhere to that path. Moreover, several software programmes that we are currently using on the Windows platform would function far better with Linux than with Windows.

Lastly, depending on the use that we are making of the clusters, the cluster model proposed by Linux RedHat seemed to us to be very close to the one proposed by OpenVMS».

Once the outline of the scheme had been established, the specification was developed and proposed to three potential service providers. One of them failed to provide a coherent response and another was so coherent that its price was completely out of the question. System Solutions won the day with a tender presenting the HP solution.

The winning tender resulted from genuine collaboration between HP and System Solutions. «Together, they had combined the technological and human aspects that Group S had wanted to be inseparable», Manu Lorant recounted. «HP had brought its thorough and exhaustive knowledge of technical solutions. On its side, System Solutions had brought its knowledge of our organisation while integrating into its mastery of the situation the solutions suggested by HP, our constraints and our modus operandi. System Solutions had also played a central role in the negotiations with Oracle, in order to obtain our licences at a competitive price».

The importance of the human relations between the partners has only grown once the HP / System Solutions tender has been adopted. Once the HP solution had been preselected, confirmation that it met Group S’s expectations in terms of performance was still required. The knell of the POC (Proof Of Concept) and the stress tests had sounded. The IT teams of Group S, System Solutions and HP joined forces to carry out some exhaustive «stress tests» of the suggested solution.

Their conclusive results led to the definitive signing of the contract. Today, the stages of the switch of the first databases (Q/A’s and pre-production) on to the new infrastructure have been accomplished thanks to the combined efforts of the service teams’ manpower. Manu Lorant is pleased and proud to be able to announce that «the human aspect of this project has been a decisive factor of its success. Our employees, those of HP and those of System Solutions have acted as one. Whether marketing or technical, their common goal was to succeed on time and within budget. It was important that the project was initially shouldered by our staff with the participation and the assistance of System Solutions, rather than vice versa. We were also expecting a transfer of skills from System Solutions and HP. Both objectives were achieved».

It should also be said that the training of the Group S systems engineers and operating groups has been immensely helped by the fact that, for more than ten years, the «KSH» command language has governed the company’s Windows operating environments.


Technology Recharges Its Batteries

A change of Operating System is no trifling migration. It touches the very heart of the operations, with all the risks that that incurs. But, it also recharges all the IT batteries, gives a body blow to practices that have «sometimes insidiously» taken root and unifies the human fervours and skills within the company. Manu Lorant concluded: «Although not all the switches have yet taken place, I can confirm that we are contemplating the future with confidence and peace of mind. For the good and simple reason that the project is based on a balanced mix between technology and mastery, and between skill and volition».