Cenegenics Builds Resilient Cisco Network to Support Its Growing Practice

It is easier to have just one specific vendor, especially for the switching gear, because there is a lot you have to worry about.”
– Dror Nisenbaum, IT Manager, Cenegenics

Pressures of Growth on IT

Dror Nisenbaum, IT Manager at Cenegenics, clearly remembers his first day of work. He arrived at eight o’clock in the morning, sat down and the phone rang before he could take the first sip of coffee. It was a disgruntled user who had been waiting a month to fix an IT problem. Nisenbaum walked him through a solution right there on the phone. The user was pleasantly surprised and relieved, while for Nisenbaum it was a not-so-subtle hint of the road ahead. In fact, after spending four intense months working through the IT support backlog, he turned his attention to the challenge of redesigning and rebuilding the network and other IT infrastructure to support the company’s fast growth.

Cenegenics, based in Las Vegas, Nevada, is the largest age management practice with 20 medical centers in the United States serving more than 20,000 patients. Age management emphasizes prevention, as opposed to treating disease, and employs nutrition, exercise, supplements and hormone treatment under the care of a physician to maximize the quality of life for its patients as they age. Cenegenics is well known for ads showing one of its physicians, Dr. Jeff Life, a 72-year old man with the toned body of a youthful muscle builder.

Cenegenics experienced many years of rapid growth. From 2006 to 2012, it expanded from 3 medical centers in Las Vegas, Boca Raton and the Carolinas to 20 medical centers throughout the United States. The number of corporate staff at its headquarters in Las Vegas quadrupled. By any measure, the practice was successful and growing.

However, the expansion and growth put a strain on its aging IT infrastructure. Ten years ago, Cenegenics had a flat network with HP equipment supporting its users and applications. They added a voice over IP (VOIP) system. The VOIP provider installed Cisco networking equipment with power over Ethernet (POE) support, so they had two networks connected via uplinks, one for data and the other for voice. Unfortunately, the features and configurations were inconsistent and many problems arose. Phones did not power up if connected to the HP switches, and computers would not acquire the right IP addresses if connected to the Cisco switches. There were many dropped calls because the HP switches did not support QoS. Data storms flared up on a couple of occasions because of misconfigurations between the networks. The IT contractor who managed Cenegenic’s network was an HP reseller trained to support HP networking equipment, but not Cisco. They had to manufacture artificial phone problems and call the VOIP provider to get Cisco support. “It was very difficult. It was the perfect storm,” said Nisenbaum.

After the support backlog was finally under control and response times were reasonable, Nisenbaum focused on diagramming and labeling the entire network, including switches, cables, distribution points and servers. “I had to redo all of the wiring closets because it looked like a spaghetti ball,” he said. The jumble of cables and switches was so confusing they resorted to pulling cables after business hours and walking to the adjacent suite to see which device turned off. The result of the effort was a diagram that provided a comprehensive view of the infrastructure and identified the single points of failure.

Building a Consolidated, Highly Resilient Network

Next they developed a plan for a consolidated, highly-available, virtualized infrastructure. It included two Cisco Catalyst 3560-X switches as the core of the network and a Cisco 3945 Integrated Services Router to replace a SonicWALL router and one other that were too small for the expanded user load. The two 3560-X switches had redundant power supplies and were paired up for failover. Six existing Cisco Catalyst 3560s would serve as edge switches. Connections around the headquarters building would have four strands trunked in pairs to make a redundant fiber ring. Pipes between suites in the building would carry not more than one fiber optic cable to eliminate the risk of a severed pipe disrupting communication. The design also included three powerful Dell servers with dual six-core processors running VMware and a Dell EqualLogic iSCSI SAN with dual controllers connected via the 3560-X core switches.

Nisenbaum felt strongly that the network should be consolidated on Cisco equipment, not a mixed-vendor environment. “It is easier to have just one specific vendor, especially for the switching gear, because there is a lot you have to worry about,” he said. Nisenbaum is Cisco-certified and very comfortable using their equipment. Though he had some experience with HP and SonicWALL equipment, he thought some of their configuration procedures were unnecessarily complicated. “Having multiple vendors brings so much complexity… I wanted to consolidate everything to one vendor, so I can train my employees and make sure the team we have in place can manage it all.”

The plan was presented to Cenegenics’ executive board. The project cost was in the six figures, a substantial investment for a company of that size. Nisenbaum’s approach was to show them all the points of failure in their existing infrastructure. “If any of these devices goes down, this is the catastrophic effect. How much is it going to cost you per day if this doesn’t work? That was my pitch. I came in six months after one of their servers crashed and they were down for almost a week. What I was saying was very fresh in their minds,” he said. The board decided to approve and fund the project.

I can sum it up with one statement:  I can sleep at night.”
– Dror Nisenbaum

Uptime Makes Everyone Happy

Installation of the new equipment took four months because some aspects of the transition had to be handled carefully to avoid disrupting users. Today the company’s applications and users run on the rebuilt and highly resilient network as well as server and storage infrastructure. It has been 16 months since a server went down. While individual components have failed and had to be replaced, such as a GBIC on a switch, the redundancy of the design ensured that users did not experience downtime. Executives and staff are pleased because they can focus on running the practice and serving patients with a stable IT infrastructure supporting them.

Asked about how he feels about the situation now, Nisenbaum replied, “I can sum it up with one statement: I can sleep at night. When I had all the aging hardware and there was such a support backlog, I didn’t have a personal life. Now that things have slowed down, it gives me the ability to see how I can improve Cenegenics as a whole.”

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 Copyright © 2012 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Virtual Machines, Virtual Desktops and Zero Clients Deliver Real Benefits for PAE Consulting Engineers

We had all this hardware running and were going to replace it every three to five years, but it wasn’t really getting used. We were never going to wear it out.
– Dustin Rowe, IT Manager and Technology Planner,
PAE Consulting Engineers

The Drive to Virtualize

For PAE Consulting Engineers, the drive to virtualize began with realizing that its distributed server architecture was only 10% utilized. The company was running 20 application workloads on eight physical servers. Since mission-critical applications were distributed among the servers, this architecture offered a reasonable degree of high availability. Restarting one application, such as Microsoft Exchange, did not require bringing down other critical applications, such as Microsoft SQL Server or Active Directory. The downside was that these servers were poorly utilized. As servers are normally replaced every few years, the company was locked into a cycle of overbuying hardware and recycling still-usable equipment. “Virtualization takes advantage of that downtime. That is what drove us forward,” said Dustin Rowe, IT Manager and Technology Planner for PAE Consulting Engineers. “We had all this hardware running and were going to replace it every three to five years, but it wasn’t really getting used. We were never going to wear it out.”

At the same time, the company had about 35 traditional desktop PCs with Intel Pentium 4 processors that had reached end-of-life and needed to be replaced. These PCs ran applications with moderate processing requirements, such as email, web browsing and project management. Here they saw an opportunity to also consider virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) instead of a typical PC upgrade. “As we moved forward, we realized that by virtualizing our application servers, we would free up hardware that could be used to explore virtual desktop systems, which we thought might be able to meet the needs of these people with traditional desktops,” said Rowe.

PAE Consulting Engineers, Inc., is a mechanical and electrical engineering firm that specializes in sustainable, efficient, “green” building design. The company is based in Portland, Oregon, and has a satellite office in San Francisco, California.

Virtual Machines, Virtual Desktops and Zero Clients

Working with a local computer consulting company called Tech Heads, PAE Consulting Engineers looked closely at various options for server virtualization and VDI, including Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix and VMware. At the time Hyper-V lacked some features they wanted. Citrix would have required eight servers to support the application workloads and desktop virtualization, while VMware could do it with half the number. They also found VMware to be very easy to use. Performing physical-to-virtual migrations and provisioning virtual machines were straightforward, simple tasks. For a small business with one IT manager handling the entire infrastructure, this was an important factor. Furthermore, pricing for virtualization software had dropped a point where it was realistic for the company’s IT budget.

The company chose VMware vSphere for server virtualization, VMware View for desktop virtualization and ClearCube I9422 Zero Clients at the desktop. VMware vSphere is the leading platform for server virtualization. VMware View is a desktop virtualization platform that runs Windows sessions centrally on a server and streams the display data over the network to client devices. In this case, the client devices were ClearCube Zero Clients that reside at each user’s desk and perform the role of a PC except for storage and processing. These devices communicate with the View server over the network using a streamlined PCoIP display protocol that facilitates a fluid screen presentation. They provide a single restart button and support dual monitors, keyboard, mouse and peripherals.

Easier to Manage and Less Costly to Operate

With the new virtual environment, PAE Consulting Engineers consolidated its original eight application servers down to two VMware servers running the same 20 application workloads in virtual machines. This was a major improvement in hardware utilization and delivered cost savings that would carry forward into the future as they only needed to replace two servers instead of eight when they reached end-of-life. Three additional servers ran VMware View to support nearly 30 virtual desktops. Two of the servers were required to support the workload and the third was for redundancy and failover purposes. Rather than purchase new hardware, they added processors, memory and network cards to the existing servers and redeployed them, thus minimizing costs for the transition to the virtual infrastructure.

They also added two IBM DS3500 Express storage systems, dedicating one for the application servers and the other for the virtual desktop system. Beyond storage consolidation and high availability, SAN storage allowed them to derive more benefits from server virtualization. For instance, the VMware vMotion feature in a SAN environment can migrate applications live between servers without disrupting user access. “We moved Microsoft Exchange in the middle of the work day with seventy people running email through it, and no one could even tell it moved to a different server,” he said.

At the relatively small scale of the company’s virtual desktop environment, hardware costs as compared to traditional PCs were break-even. While Zero Clients cost less than PCs and have a longer expected life of 7 to 10 years since they lack moving parts, the VMware View servers and SAN storage also factored in to the total cost.

The greatest benefit PAE Consulting Engineers experienced from VDI was simplified management and reduced IT supports costs. Rowe continued, “Now IT has one place to go take care of hardware. Aside from training and educating users on the end point, we nearly never have to go to the desk. That foot traffic is an incredible amount of time for the IT staff. You’re up and constantly going to a different machine to do something physically that is unnecessary with the technology we are using these days. We can do everything from our remote session. And as you scale the business, it becomes more and more valuable – by an order of magnitude.”

Windows functionality for virtual desktop users was identical to traditional PCs, though it took time for users to adjust to some differences in the interface. For instance, when restarting a computer, users only saw a welcome screen instead of one proclaiming that Windows is restarting, so they wondered if the computer was working correctly. While issues like this did not affect productivity, they required some changes in how users interacted with the system. Most workers used ClearCube Zero Clients as client devices. A handful of people used an Apple laptop or mobile device as their main computer and ran a View software client for occasional Windows access.

A surprising benefit of virtualization was the ability to extend the useful life of server hardware. Normally servers are replaced when the warranty expires after 3 to 5 years because warranty costs becomes prohibitive as the hardware ages. But with redundant servers and components and the ease of moving workloads around in a virtual environment, it becomes possible to continue using servers outside of warranty until they fail, then replace them. “We can be more flexible and let the hardware push us to replace, not the warranty,” said Rowe. However, a thoughtful recovery plan should be in place to do this. The company knows which of its applications are mission-critical and which can afford a little downtime in case of a hardware failure and recovery scenario.

Virtualization is a big deal. It is literally everything that it proposed itself to be.”
– Dustin Rowe

Another benefit they experienced was energy efficiency and lower electricity costs. The ClearCube Zero Clients consume only 15 W of power compared to 100 W for the PCs they replaced, which reduced power and heat dissipation at the desktop by 85% and eliminated noise from fans and hard drives. The tasks of computer processing and storage were transferred to three 300 W servers and a SAN storage array. Even including this hardware in the calculation, the power consumption per desktop was still reduced by approximately 50%.

Potentially More to Come

to the future, Rowe noted that the industry is developing server offload cards for graphics processing that could open the door to run CAD and sophisticated graphic design applications in the virtual desktop environment. Currently the workers using these applications have workstations with 3D graphics cards that perform the heavy-duty processing because it would be too slow and choppy to run these applications on a central server. But if high-performance graphics processing were available for the View servers, the company could consolidate the remainder of its desktops and further streamline the IT infrastructure.

“Personally it is very exciting to see legitimate advancements in technology,” he added. “For a long time, there hasn’t been anything to really change the way we think about how hardware should operate and when we’re going to replace it. But virtualization is a big deal. It is literally everything that it proposed itself to be. It just takes using it a while to really see.”

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 Copyright © 2011 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Arlie and Company Revamps IT with Server Virtualization and Unified Storage

It took more than all night to do tape backups of the data. They would roll over into the daytime and really affect mail flow and access time to files on the file server.
– Adam Falk, Director of Technical Operations, Arlie & Company

Toward More Robust and Efficient IT

After a period of fast growth, Arlie & Company founds its server and storage infrastructure no longer provided the robustness and efficiency that the business needed. Nightly tape backups did not complete within the backup window. “It took more than all night to do tape backups of the data. They would roll over into the daytime and really affect mail flow and access time to files on the file server,” said Adam Falk, Director of Technical Operations for Arlie & Company. The servers were not configured for redundancy and failover, so the company was at risk of losing access to applications like email and printing potentially for days if the server hardware failed and had to be replaced. Furthermore, CPU and memory utilization on the servers was very low, and Falk felt the assets were not being well-utilized.

Arlie & Company is a privately-owned real estate development and management company based in Eugene, Oregon. By mid-2008, the company had doubled in size over a period of six years, reaching 28 employees, and was planning to double again. It was at this time they decided to upgrade the IT infrastructure.

The existing infrastructure consisted of two Windows servers running with about a half terabyte each of internal hard drive storage. One was a Dell PowerEdge 2800, a high-availability tower server with dual Intel Xeon processors, running Microsoft Small Business Server which included Exchange, SharePoint, the domain controller and a public-facing FTP site. The company had purchased it three years prior with the idea of growing into it. The other server was running Windows file and print services.

VMware and NetApp as Foundation

To address the problems of performance, resiliency and efficiency, Falk proposed two key technologies: server virtualization and consolidated, shared storage. After reviewing multiple products, they decided to purchase and install VMware vSphere 4 and a NetApp FAS2020 storage platform.

VMware is the market-leading server virtualization platform. It partitions a physical server into multiple virtual machines, each of which acts as a discrete server environment. Virtual machines are far easier to create, delete and move than physical machines and provide greater flexibility and higher server utilization.

The NetApp FAS2020 is a unified storage platform that includes both SAN and NAS, block and file storage, in one system. The FAS2020 supports iSCSI and Fibre Channel block protocols and CIFS, NFS and FTP file protocols. It expands to 12 disk drives internally and 68 drives overall through external expansion units. It runs NetApp’s Data ONTAP operating system that offers space-efficient differential snapshots and numerous other data management and protection features.

Arlie & Company based its upgraded IT infrastructure around the FAS2020 as a centralized, shared storage platform that connects to servers and clients over a Gigabit Ethernet network. Six of the twelve internal drive slots in the FAS2020 contain 1 TB SATA drives, and the others are available for future expansion. The drives are configured for redundancy using a combination of double-parity RAID and internal mirroring. Some storage capacity is allocated as a Windows file share accessed via CIFS for storing documents, photos, etc. The remainder is dedicated to iSCSI LUNs for VMware virtual machines. NetApp is integrated with Windows and VMware at the functional and management layers, enabling these technologies to leverage each other’s functionality and minimizing the learning curve for IT administrators. Of the storage platforms that Falk evaluated, the FAS2020 was the most tightly integrated with VMware and Windows.

The two existing host servers were repurposed to run Windows Server 2008 and VMware. Each has dual Gigabit Ethernet ports for high-bandwidth connections to clients and storage. The servers boot off USB drives and then access their primary storage over the network on the FAS2020. (Network boot for VMware is also an option available today.) Exchange, SharePoint, the FTP server, web presence, and primary and secondary domain controllers now run in virtual machines distributed between the two servers. In addition, VMware has a large community that provides free virtualized applications, where Falk found ProjectPier, an open-source, web-based application for project collaboration and task management. He installed ProjectPier in a virtual machine and saved $50 per month the company used to pay for a commercial hosted project collaboration service.

In this virtual environment, upgrading or moving an application is non-disruptive to the other applications running on the same physical server. Testing and development is streamlined as well. Instead of deploying a physical server, Falk tests new software by installing it in a virtual machine. If he decides not to keep the software, it is a simple matter to roll the virtual machine back to the previous state.

I am very pleased and very comfortable with the level of systems security and uptime.”
– Adam Falk

Robust, Non-disruptive Data Protection

The company’s critical data is now protected with disk-based snapshots, local replication and nightly backups to tape that are stored offsite for disaster recovery – all without slowing or disrupting user applications. The FAS2020 is scheduled to automatically take snapshots of the Windows file share five times per day and keeps 30 days of snapshots online. If a file is accidentally deleted or dragged and dropped into an unknown folder, users can retrieve any previous version right from the Windows interface, thanks to the NetApp integration. Each night Symantec Backup Exec 12.5 backs up the last daily snapshot to tape.

A different backup application called Veeam Backup and Replication protects the virtual machine images. Veeam is the market-leading backup and recovery solution designed specifically for VMware virtual environments. It offers instant recovery of virtual machines and files and recovery of application objects like email. It also verifies the recoverability of every backup image and replicates them locally or to a remote site for disaster recovery.

In this case, Veeam Backup and Replication takes nightly snapshots (changed blocks only) of the virtual machines and stores them on the backup server’s local hard drive. (Backup Exec uses the snapshots as the source for tape backups.) Furthermore, every seven hours Veeam takes snapshots of the images for Exchange, the domain controller and company’s web presence and replicates them to the local drive on a separate blade server. “If something happens to the OS in the virtual machine or if the hardware fails, I can immediately turn on that replica and bring up the mail server, which is our most critical application,” said Falk.

“I am very pleased and very comfortable with the level of systems security and uptime. IT is a service department. I don’t bring in money. I’m an expense area. So my job is to make sure everyone who does bring in money has the tools they need to do their jobs. That means the highest availability and least disruption possible to services,” he added. The upgraded infrastructure has been run smoothly since it was installed two and a half years ago. In fact, Arlie & Company has experienced only a single email outage, which lasted ten hours, in the last seven years – a solid record for a small business with a one-man IT shop.

Room to Grow, Space to Breathe

The virtualized servers and shared, unified storage are utilized at closer to capacity, so the assets are more efficient and “green.” At the same time, there is plenty of headroom to expand when business starts to grow again. The infrastructure is also easier to manage. “The amount of time I spend on IT has decreased to the point that I have actually picked up other duties in the company, because I don’t have to babysit so much,” said Falk.

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 Copyright © 2011 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Purewire Relies on Brocade for Delivering a Global Web Security Service with a Cloud-Based Infrastructure

We have two main goals. One is keeping users secure, and the second is not to disrupt normal web browsing activity.”
– Dr. Paul Judge, CTO and Co-Founder, Purewire

Software as a Service – Around the Globe

What infrastructure is needed to deliver a web-based software service with consistently fast performance to users around the world? While it is one matter to deliver performance to users in a dedicated, local environment, it is another altogether to deliver performance globally over the World Wide Web. This question of performance is one Purewire had to answer as it built out a data center infrastructure for its web security service, which it launched a little over a year ago.

Purewire is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of web security services for organizations of all sizes – small businesses to Fortune 1000 enterprises. “Purewire provides a service to secure users while they are surfing the web,” said Dr. Paul Judge, chief technology officer and co-founder of Purewire. “We accelerate traffic, so they are getting legitimate content faster. We also are looking at the destination to make sure they are going to the appropriate places, especially in the case of businesses. And then the third thing we do is examine the responses from those websites to make sure they are not malicious and trying to attack the user’s PC or compromise that user’s computer.”

Purewire acts like a security guard sitting between a user and the web at large. “A user simply points outbound web surfing through the Purewire service. And regardless of the location or destination they are visiting, their web activity is going through this infrastructure,” he said.

The Purewire service appeals to enterprises because it offers comprehensive web security for their workers. Enterprises can enforce a user policy for web activities like browsing, web applications and social networks. It protects users inside and outside of a company’s firewall. Judge continued, “The Purewire service not only protects users when they are at the office, but also when the user picks up that laptop and goes across the street to the coffee shop or across the country to a hotel. Purewire is always in between that user and the web, so we have the same level protection regardless of location.” It applies to laptop PCs as well as mobile devices like the iPhone and Blackberry, which have previously gone unprotected. A cloud-based service also avoids having to install web security appliances at every remote or branch office. Thus, it is easier to deploy and centrally manage.

The challenge for Purewire was to deliver these security benefits without causing a perceivable slowdown in a user’s web experience, regardless of their location. “We have two main goals. One is keeping users secure, and the second is not to disrupt normal web browsing activity,” he said.

Brocade ServerIron for Global Server Load Balancing

Purewire set up server farms hosting its web security service in several data centers around the world. Then it needed a means to direct users to the best data center for the fastest response time, and within a data center, to route requests to the most available server. They chose Brocade ServerIron 350, ServerIron 450 and ServerIron 4G series of application delivery controllers to provide this global server load balancing and traffic routing capability. These application switches offered high performance and application throughput as well as ease of management in a globally distributed environment.

Dr. Judge elaborated, “No matter where a user is in the world, we need to reliably get their data routed to our data center and through our data center. So we use Brocade for load balancing and traffic redirection. Whenever a user is, say, in the middle of South America and decides they need to connect to a Purewire service, the load balancing will direct them to the appropriate data center. Then within that data center, we again use intelligent load balancing to direct that traffic to the best possible server.”

A user doesn’t know we’re there, unless and until we have to protect them from some threat.”
– Dr. Paul Judge

Performance as Designed

When asked if this cloud-based infrastructure is meeting expectations, Judge responded, “Yes, absolutely. Customers are delighted. Our channel partners are delighted. People are becoming more aware of the need to protect their users and more aware of the advantages of deploying that as a service. The number of customers that we service and the amount of traffic that we monitor is steadily increasing… The Purewire service is performing as designed – a user doesn’t know we’re there, unless and until we have to protect them from some threat.”

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 Copyright © 2009 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Database Emailer Finds Database Stability and Business Growth with Infobright

We were still crashing due to the amount of records… We went to MySQL and said, ‘What can we do here?’”
– Al Inga, President and CEO, Database Emailer

A Large and Unwieldy Database

Database Emailer ran into serious challenges when its MySQL database grew too large. MySQL is a popular and functional open source database, but the scale of the company’s data was more than the platform could effectively handle. “We had partitioned the database into over 70 partitions,” said Al Inga, President and CEO of Database Emailer. “And we were still crashing due to the amount of records. We had about 20 columns in relation with 300 million rows. We went to MySQL and said, ‘What can we do here?’”

Based in Little Falls, New Jersey, Database Emailer is the largest opt-in email database in the United States. Opt-in means that people have expressly agreed to receive product offers and specials by email. The company sells email lists that can be targeted by multiple criteria or “selects,” such as geographic location and demographics (e.g. income, gender, dwelling status). Its customers then market to these lists.

For Database Emailer, its database is its business. The ability to perform fast queries and generate lists for each customer request is essential. But its large and unwieldy database meant the IT department had to spend about 100 hours per week performing manual queries. “We couldn’t run queries effectively,” said Inga. “If someone came to us and wanted to run four or five or six different selects – for instance, women between 30 and 50 years old who make an income of X amount of dollars who live in New York City and own a home – there was no way that could be run on the website.” In such cases, the IT staff ran the query directly on the MySQL server and determined the number of records. After reporting back to the customer, the number of records was often too small or too large for the customer’s needs, so they had to change the parameters and run another query. “At that point, you’re just going back and forth, back and forth, tying up the IT department with doing queries because it can’t be run through a website interface,” he said.

Manual queries slowed down the sales process and cost the company up to $1,000 per day in IT staff time.

A Smooth Transition to Infobright

In response to Database Emailer’s request for help, MySQL recommended its partner Infobright, which offers a self-managing, scalable data warehouse that is optimized for analytics and integrated with MySQL. Database Emailer downloaded a free, open source version called Infobright Community Edition. After trying it out, they decided to purchase and deploy the commercial version, Infobright Enterprise Edition (IEE).

Infobright is a column-oriented database, so data is stored column-by-column instead of row-by-row. This architecture enables more efficient data compression of 10:1 or better instead of the typical 2:1 or 3:1 compression ratios. A 50 TB database could be stored in only 5 TB of capacity – a significant storage savings. The database is self-managing, so administrators do not have to manually create and manage indexes. Infobright also organizes and tracks data in a way that enables very fast queries.

Infobright’s integration with MySQL eased the transition. Database Emailer was able to keep its MySQL code base, and the IT department could apply its existing knowledge and skills to the Infobright solution. “My IT guys were very quickly able to learn the Infobright infrastructure. A lot of it was very common. If they knew MySQL, they could quickly learn this,” said Inga.

They used the same server and storage hardware for the Infobright solution. “It required zero outlay for additional servers. The Infobright engine was able to handle it. We were only running 4 gigabytes of RAM,” he said.

Online Queries Mean Business Growth

With the new, robust Infobright database, Database Emailer could offer online queries of the entire database, including the United States and Canada. “So now everyone can do queries 24 x 7 x 365 on their own,” said Inga. “If they want to increase their data sample, they can just change one of the variables and increase or decrease the record count. Once they lock it in, they can hit the button and we have a debit-credit system set up where they can store credits on the account. When they download the data, it debits their account. No intervention from the IT department. So we literally have spent 100 hours a week less time doing queries.”

Business has increased since March probably 200 or 300 percent.”
– Al Inga

The fast online queries have made the sales process more competitive. “People are now using it more and more because of the access to immediate information. Whereas before, they might wait for a quote from us and we might not be able to get back to them for several hours or the next day. In the meantime, they are shopping around three or four other places. Now, they know they can get immediate quotes right from us. We are the first source they go to, and most of the time we have what they want,” he said.

“Business has increased since March probably 200 or 300 percent,” he continued. “Interestingly enough, the money that was going towards the IT people is now heading towards customer service. We actually have more customers now than ever, and more sales calls coming in. So sales and customer service are increasing, but IT costs have substantially decreased.”

Inga is proud of how well his company is able to compete with these new capabilities: “Major data supplier corporations’ websites don’t have one-tenth of the queries that we are able to run on our website. We are virtually a mom-and-pop operation that is able to compete with companies that are hundred million, five hundred million, billion dollar corporations.”

In short, Inga is pleased the new Infobright platform. “We’re real happy,” he said. “It literally has caused the business to increase substantially.”

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 Copyright © 2009 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

WASSER Studios Reduces Long-Term Costs With a Consolidated, Virtualized Infrastructure

We went with leading edge hardware so that we could grow into it over time and then focus on minimizing our management. Over time, that pays for itself.”
– Trevor Koop, IT Manager, WASSER Studios

A Change in IT Strategy

WASSER Studios decided to change its IT strategy in an effort to better support the business. It transitioned from a near-term focus on acquisition cost to a broader, long-term emphasis on ease of management, high asset utilization and low total cost of ownership. As a result, it was able to deliver a more reliable and functional IT infrastructure that cost the company less over time.

Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, WASSER Studios creates technical documentation and content for clients such as HP, Sony, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser. It employs a variable number of people based on project demand – some are contractors hired on temporary basis. At the main office, the number of workers at can range from about 50 to 125 people, plus project managers and writers working remotely and at client sites. Its computer systems must be able to support a fluctuating number of local and remote users.

“WASSER Studios previously had taken an approach where we would buy previous-generation technology and then support that over time with parts from various places,” said Trevor Koop, IT Manager of WASSER Studios. “It was a very low cost method for us to keep everything up and running.” While they were able to support the business reasonably well with this approach, it required a significant amount of troubleshooting and reactive problem solving to maintain the infrastructure. Savings on hardware were eventually consumed by the cost of managing it. Occasional downtime of secondary applications would also slow down office productivity. “It’s never that we had work stoppages, but we had definite bottlenecks or pinch points,” he said.

To a Consolidated, Virtualized Infrastructure

Rather than continue with the status quo, WASSER opted to consolidate and virtualize the server infrastructure and employ more sophisticated management tools. “We decided to do that in an effort to consolidate and get off of the older, faultier server hardware that we had. In doing so, the hope was to minimize management and mitigate hardware failures, which we did,” said Koop.

The company deployed Microsoft Windows Essential Business Server (EBS) initially as a beta customer in late 2006.  This solution, which has since become generally available, bundles and integrates several Microsoft technologies for IT management, messaging and security at a discounted price. These include Microsoft Windows Server 2008, System Center Essentials, Exchange Server and Forefront Threat Management Gateway. Windows EBS targets midsize enterprises.

The software ran on an HP BladeSystem c3000 with five HP ProLiant server blades running AMD multi-core Opteron processors, two disk storage blades and an LTO tape blade. The BladeSystem c3000 is a flexible, all-in-one infrastructure in a single enclosure. Three of the server blades ran the Windows EBS components for management, messaging and security, respectively. The fourth blade supported multiple applications in a Microsoft Hyper-V virtual environment, and the fifth was a Terminal Services Gateway Server for remote users to securely access to internal corporate resources.

“We have typically used AMD chips,” said Koop. “We’re very comfortable with the performance and the reliability of them, so we tend to stick with them. And it’s worked out really well for us.”

Easier Management and Lower TCO

“So with this new deployment,” he continued, “we went from having all these disparate hardware platforms to having most everything in the blade server. We went with leading edge hardware so that we could grow into it over time and then focus on minimizing our management. Over time, that pays for itself.”

In particular, System Center Essentials helped ease the management burden for clients and servers with its monitoring, alerts and automation. “It really allowed us to be more proactive in maintenance, patching clients, monitoring applications. We know something is going to happen before an end user reports something going haywire on their desktop,” he said.

Hyper-V boosted server utilization by running multiple applications in a virtual environment. “This enables us to maximize the capacity of the hardware and also minimize the cost of the hardware that we have to purchase, whether replacement parts or whole servers,” he said. “From an energy efficiency standpoint, I know that Hyper-V runs a lot cooler than if we had all these older physical servers still in the room. Although I don’t have metrics, I can make a safe assumption that we’re being a lot more energy efficient.”

When asked what he liked most about this new solution, Koop responded: “I like the fact that in my current situation I can really be proactive in management. I can see something may be a problem and take care of it before it becomes a larger problem. But it also gives time to focus on the future. Because I’m not running around putting out fires, I have more time to think about what I can do with our infrastructure in the future to be more productive and to allow WASSER to provide more services to potential clients. So I think in my small ways, I’m able to do that, helping contribute to the growth of the company.”

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 Copyright © 2009 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Straining Under Success — NACR Consolidates Servers and Storage to Cope with Rapid Growth

So we had two choices. One was to make our data center larger – or to consolidate our current systems.”
– Daric Trnka, Network Engineer, NACR

Bursting at the Seams

“We were outgrowing our data center,” said Daric Trnka, Network Engineer at NACR, a communications solutions provider based in Eagan, Minnesota. “So we had two choices. One was to make our data center larger – or to consolidate our current systems.”

NACR had grown from 70 to 450 employees in four years, and its data center was bursting at the seams. Floor space and power were constrained. Cables ran everywhere. “We couldn’t get around to work,” said Trnka. There were no more available power outlets in the room. The racks of IT equipment generated enough heat to raise the room’s temperature 10 to 12 degrees higher than the thermostat setting, in spite of three air conditioning units working overtime.

Numerous x86 servers with internal storage populated the data center racks. Each server hosted an individual application, such as payroll, file and print services, web sites, help desk as well as Microsoft SharePoint and Live Communications. In this fragmented environment, server and storage utilization was low, which meant costly hardware remained idle. The server sprawl had also become difficult and time-consuming to manage.

In short, the rapid growth and success of the business had created a strain on the data center that NACR needed to resolve.

Solution:  Networked Storage and Server Virtualization

NACR initially wanted a storage area network (SAN) to consolidate storage and lay the groundwork for replicating data to an offsite data center. However, they realized that SAN connections for their many servers would be too expensive, so they decided to consolidate servers as well to reduce the number of connections required.
Two value-added resellers presented bids. One proposed an iSCSI SAN based on an IP network. S1 IT Solutions proposed a high-performance Fibre Channel SAN with server consolidation using VMware virtualization. NACR chose the S1 solution because it was a better fit for their performance requirements and addressed the whole IT infrastructure. The S1 solution included:

  • Two Fibre Channel switches (IBM 2005-B16), each with 16 x 4Gbps ports for SAN connectivity
  • A SAN-attached disk storage system (IBM DS4700) with 3 TB of shared, centralized storage
  • Two x86 servers (IBM System x3650) running VMware for server consolidation

The installation went smoothly. It took less than two weeks and required only two visits from an S1 technical consultant. Trnka used VMware Converter to convert physical server environments to virtual machines running on the new servers. He learned to operate the new infrastructure quickly. The migration did not affect production operations and was transparent to users.

The servers are now clustered for high availability. “If one of the physical servers fail, all of the virtual servers will fail over to the remaining one,” he said. Production data is stored on Fibre Channel drives in the system to maximize performance, while test and development data and the file and print server are on SATA drives in the same system to minimize costs. This tiered storage approach achieves a finer balance between performance and cost.

I feel relieved. It’s a lot easier to manage… This thing has met every promise so far.”
– Daric Trnka

Results:  Streamlined Data Center and Fast, Flexible Provisioning

The S1 solution has dramatically streamlined the data center. It consolidated from 26 physical servers to only two physical servers running 26 virtual machines. Instead of internal storage, the servers connect to a single shared storage system over a SAN. The number of equipment racks dropped from three to two – with plenty of room to spare. There are only eight network cables connected to the two physical servers, instead of the dozens of cables they had before. Power outlets are available again. The air conditioning units do not have to work as hard, and the room temperature is now the same as the thermostat setting!

IT costs have fallen as a result. Higher utilization of server and storage hardware means less equipment needs to be purchased. Savings on power and cooling are substantial – an increasingly important factor as energy costs rise. Most significantly, NACR avoided the expense of a data center expansion since consolidation was enough to solve the problem.

“It’s easier to support. We need less IT personnel to support the servers,” said Trnka. Maintenance, upgrades, cabling, test, development and provisioning are all greatly simplified. For instance, when someone requested a server, they used to buy a physical server and then install the operating system. “Now we just have to right-click our template virtual server and it’s done in about 25 minutes,” he said. This means the business itself can more quickly and dynamically respond to the challenges of growth and change.

“I feel relieved. It’s a lot easier to manage. I mean it’s just crazy to have everything you need on one screen… It’s the first time it has ever worked the way the brochure said. Normally when you buy a product, you have a brochure version of it and a real-world version of it. This thing has met every promise so far.”

Looking Forward

NACR plans to put all remaining application data on the SAN. Five Citrix servers, two SQL servers and an Exchange server will be migrated to the SAN as their hardware warranties expire. NACR also plans to establish a secondary SAN at an offsite data center for remote replication and disaster recovery.

Copyright © 2009 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.