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.

For ReadyToPlay CD Ripping Services, Reliable and Trusted Storage Is Paramount

We get collectors who have fifty CDs all the way up to five and six thousand… These jobs are gigabytes, maybe terabytes of data.”
– Jeff Tedesco, President and CEO, ReadyToPlay

Ripping Means Data

ReadyToPlay, based in Palo Alto, California, specializes in high-quality CD ripping services. Ripping is technical jargon for converting audio media to a digital format for playback in iPods and other digital music players like Apple TV, Seagate FreeAgent Theater+, Logitech Squeezebox and Sonos. Since audio files are large, ReadyToPlay must be able to store, handle and ship a significant amount of data in a reliable, inexpensive way for its customers. “We get collectors who have fifty CDs all the way up to five and six thousand. The largest one we’ve done is eight thousand. These jobs are gigabytes, maybe terabytes of data,” said Jeff Tedesco, President and CEO of ReadyToPlay.

To put this amount of data in perspective, a gigabyte is one billion bytes, which is equivalent to the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. In terms of digital media, it takes six gigabytes of storage on average to hold:

  • 100 hours of digital music or
  • 1,600 digital photos or
  • 6 hours of digital video or
  • 1 two-hour DVD-quality movie or
  • 3 video games

As you can see, CD ripping means data!

ReadyToPlay formed six years ago after Apple introduced the first iPod. “It came out and I decided, ‘This thing is really cool, so I’m going to rip my own CDs,’” said Tedesco. “And I found the process to be cumbersome and inaccurate. So I ended up forming a company that rips CDs for people, but I utilize technologies and databases that allow me to do a better job than they could possibly do. So our value isn’t around the time savings – it’s around doing a better job and a higher quality job than they could do themselves. We have robotics equipment, sophisticated software, very rigid processes.”

The company’s clientele speaks to its level of quality. “We get orders from all over the world: Switzerland, Australia, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Finland, all over the United States. I’ve done Elton John’s personal CD collection, Dave Matthews, Michael Tilson-Thomas. We’ve done the Juilliard School and all their classical CDs. So we’ve become accustomed to working with a lot of different types of individuals and a lot of different types of music,” he said.

Quality Is in the Metadata

An important way ReadyToPlay provides quality is through metadata, which is the descriptive information about the music files, such as artist name, composer, genre, album name and cover art. Metadata is very useful for audiophiles who want to organize their music collections, create custom playlists and view album artwork as songs are played. ReadyToPlay’s ripping software cross-checks metadata against four professional music databases, including one used by Amazon: AMG or “All Music Guide.” This multiple database approach generates thorough and consistent metadata. “So what’s great is Sheryl Crow comes up spelled right as Sheryl Crow. In classical music, the artist is always the conductor and it’s never Wolfgang Mozart – that’s under a composer field. So we have very high levels of accurate data,” he said.

ReadyToPlay also rips CDs to multiple file formats according to customer requirements. For instance, MP3 is commonly used for iPods, while full-fidelity, lossless formats like AIFF, Apple Lossless or FLAC are used for home stereo systems. Lossless formats are larger. A CD in MP3 format takes up about 150 megabytes of storage, while a CD in lossless format takes up to 600 megabytes. With multiple formats and CD collections numbering in the hundreds and thousands, the data adds up.

Customers are thrilled. Their whole CD collection which was a wall of CDs is now boiled down to a small, portable disk drive.
– Jeff Tedesco

ReadyToPlay Relies on Seagate Storage

The ripping process starts with a customer emptying his or her CD changer or case holder into a box and shipping them to ReadyToPlay. Once at the company’s facility, the CDs are loaded into robots that hold 600 CDs each. Then ripping commences. After the audio files are created and metadata is cross-checked and honed, the jobs are typically stored on Seagate FreeAgent Go portable external hard drives and shipped back to the customer with their CDs. “Love those portable drives,” said Tedesco. “We will put a person’s entire collection on one of those drives and be able to send it back. It’s literally amazing. We will get six boxes of CDs and what comes back is a three inch by five inch mini hard drive with all their files in lossless format. And customers are thrilled. Their whole CD collection which was a wall of CDs is now boiled down to a small, portable disk drive.”

“Having a reliable drive to put the customer jobs on is really important. I’ve never had a failure on a Seagate portable drive. It’s a name brand people trust and love. Some other companies might use drives that they build to try to save some money. I don’t want to do that. It’s just not worth it. I’m all about quality, so I just take the best name brand drive I can get and do the best quality work that we can.”

At its facility, ReadyToPlay backs up jobs on a Seagate BlackArmor NAS (networked-attached storage) 440 server for 30 days. “If they’re lost in transit, we still have a copy here and can recover them. We’ve never had anything happen, but it’s a matter of policy that we back up every job,” he said. The BlackArmor NAS 440 is RAID 5 protected and scales from one to eight terabytes of room to accommodate growing storage requirements.

Next Step – Audio Recognition Technology?

As a potential future service, ReadyToPlay is exploring automated audio recognition technology for CDs with custom music mixes. Identifying songs on these homemade CDs is currently not possible. But this new technology would analyze each song’s audio profile and beats per minute to figure out what it is. “We’re kind of looking into some partnerships to help us do that,” said Tedesco. “It’s really advanced.”

ReadyToPlay sells its services through Magnolia Audio Video stores, through a national network of custom AV equipment installers and direct via its website. In addition to audio CDs, the company also rips video DVDs to the Kaleidescape System, which is the only legal platform currently available for importing DVDs.

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 Copyright © 2010 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.

Barracuda Backup Service Displaces Tape at Immigration Support Services

I think peace of mind and confidence are the greatest benefits, and the price is minimal for that advantage.”
– Jeff Boatright, Executive Vice President, Immigration Support Services

Tape Backup Slow & Inconvenient

“Our business generates a lot of data, so it’s vital that we have good, accurate, timely backups at all times,” said Jeff Boatright, Executive Vice President and Co-Owner of Immigration Support Services. “We had a tape backup system and a series of daily, weekly and monthly backup tapes. We would take them offsite and rotate them. And as we grew and the amount of data grew, it became increasingly cumbersome to have to do that. It was slow and inconvenient. Even the occasional need to recover a file wasn’t the easiest thing to do.”

Immigration Support Services, based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, is a private company that processes visa petitions on behalf of employers around the nation that would like to hire someone from overseas. “We help them prepare the paperwork and submit it to the government, not unlike an accountant might prepare a tax return for a company and submit it to the IRS. It’s an HR outsource service,” said Boatright.

Day-to-day management of the tape backup system became a burden for Immigration Support Services. Since the company did not have its own IT department, one of the employees had to assume the role of part-time backup administrator. Continually swapping out tapes and transporting them offsite was time-consuming and a hassle. The company wanted a better way to back up its database and file systems – a system that was easy to manage, backed up data consistently and provided fast recovery.

From Tape to Barracuda Backup Service

In February 2006, the company decided to replace its tape backup system with the Barracuda Backup Service (known at the time as Bitleap) from Barracuda Networks. This service provides full local backup to disk and replicates data to two geographically remote sites for disaster recovery. At the customer’s site a small backup server sits on the network. The server initiates backups automatically based on a user-defined schedule and de-duplicates data inline to reduce storage requirements by as much as 20 to 50 times. During off-hours it encrypts and transmits data to the remote sites.

Pricing is based on total storage consumed. “Barracuda Networks has brackets of subscription rates that are based on total storage needs, and then it’s billed monthly,” said Boatright. “They send warnings when you bump against the ceiling of your plan. But they’re very helpful in reviewing your backup settings to make sure you’re not backing up and retaining more data than necessary.”

Transitioning from tape to the Barracuda Backup Service was a straightforward process. “It was like going from horse and buggy to automobile. It’s not too hard. When you instantly get to go 60 miles an hour, the little bit of effort it takes to learn to drive the car is nothing compared to the benefit of having learned,” he said.

Peace of Mind and Confidence

After their struggles with tape backup, Boatright feels relieved to have a reliable third-party service take care of backup and recovery. “Having the backup effectively done for us, having an Internet interface, being able to read the backups and retrieve files as necessary – the whole convenience of it was night and day,” he said.

“We’re not a technology company, we’re technology users. The company is relatively small. At our largest we have been only about 20 employees, but we generate a lot of work and data. Being able to unload backup on a purchased service was tremendous. Not only was it convenient, but it instilled confidence in our ability to have good backups. That just means it is something you don’t have to think about during the day.”

“Occasionally someone will delete a file by mistake. We haven’t had a catastrophic failure, thankfully. But someone might come in and say, ‘Oops, I can’t find this file – I deleted it.’ We can retrieve it in a couple of minutes and put it back on the server where it’s supposed to be. It really is very simple.”

Boatright considers the fee for the Barracuda Backup Service to be less than the cost of labor for managing the old tape backup system. He continued, “We can run the company and have confidence our information is stored well and retrievable. I think peace of mind and confidence are the greatest benefits, and the price is minimal for that advantage.”

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 Copyright © 2009 Apropos LLC. All rights reserved.