Crisis mode: That’s where IT manager Wayne Stedman found himself just minutes after first walking through the front door of what was then Chautauqua Communications, a 30-person marketing communications firm in San Francisco’s South of Market district.
With the company’s only server down and no backup or disaster plan to speak of, Chautauqua employees were without access to critical business applications and data and had no effective way of restoring the information and apps themselves.
“I thought they were joking,” says Stedman, reliving his first day at Chautauqua (recently acquired by R2C Group of Portland, Ore.) last December.
Instead of receiving a typical first-day-on-the-job welcome, Stedman was faced with an immediate disaster-recovery event and a long-term IT challenge. “I had walked into an office that was dead, technologically speaking.”
Stedman was able to bring the company’s server back online within a few hours and fully restore its data over the course of the day, but the outcome could just as easily have been disastrous. “It turned out to be a bad piece of memory. Finding that bad piece was a matter of trial and error, but I was lucky,” he says.
Anyone who has ever tried to find and fix a bad sector of memory knows the process can be painstaking and can often result in the loss of data or an irretrievably failed system.
With no reliable copy of the data or server to which to fail-over, Chautauqua/R2C was fortunate that the bad sector was fixable, no data was lost and the restore process was completed within an acceptable timeframe.
The story of Chautauqua/R2C is a familiar one among SMBs today. With minimal resources for IT, SMBs often still rely on skeletal infrastructures for as long as they can to support their businesses. This can be a huge mistake.
Such an approach to technology may support basic business applications and user requirements but does little to drive efficiencies within a company. It doesn’t help cut costs, reduce risk or solve existing business challenges — benefits that are all possible when the right IT is applied.
Stedman gets this. He understands the value of using IT — particularly storage — for both tactical and strategic purposes.
From a purely tactical standpoint, Chautauqua/R2C is relying on storage to solve fundamental backup, capacity and performance problems. From a strategic perspective, the company is using the technology to solve overarching business problems, such as cost reduction, security/risk mitigation, application support and energy-saving green initiatives.
Recent research from the Enterprise Strategy Group suggests that medium-size businesses are becoming increasingly sophisticated when it comes to data storage.
When asked what factors would have the greatest influence on their companies’ server and storage spending over the next 24 months, 43 percent of IT decision-makers in medium-size businesses indicate they were being pushed to help their organization use IT to improve and optimize business processes; 42 percent say they were being pressured to reduce the overall costs of doing business; and 33 percent say they were being asked by business executives to improve business intelligence and deliver real-time business information.
Smaller organizations may be slower to follow suit because of resource constraints, but the benefits are just as real. The challenge is overcoming inertia and then finding the right technology tools to accomplish the job.
Are We There Yet?
Invariably, SMBs reach a tipping point when existing IT methods no longer cut it and new technologies and strategies need to be considered. This could be the result of significant data growth, the rollout of new applications, an acquisition or merger, new business initiatives or requirements, regulatory or corporate governance pressure, or a combination of these.
For Chautauqua, a combination of two events put them over the edge: the failure of its troubled server (for the second time) and the acquisition by R2C Group. With 235 employees and five offices now to support, technology took on new importance within the company, as did Stedman’s role as storage evangelist.
Although the first order of business is to ensure the status quo, long-term plans are more strategic or business-focused, centering more on process improvement than putting out fires. While Stedman still gets bogged down in dealing with fundamental storage issues, such as ensuring that backup schedules are met and planning for future capacity growth, he is spending a lot more time thinking about the strategic ways that storage — and other IT technologies — can be deployed for business benefit.
Chautauqua/R2C recently invested in new IT gear from Hewlett-Packard to support these initiatives, including a DL360 rack-mounted server, a BladeSystem c3000 Enclosure equipped with a BL460 blade server and a storage area network, leveraging HP’s StorageWorks Modular Smart Array 2012i. The company also replaced its aging fleet of Digital Audio Tape drives with new Linear Tape-Open (LTO)-3 technology and has plans to install two additional blade servers later this year.
While the cost of these new products may be deal-breakers for some SMBs, they haven’t been for Chautauqua/R2C.
Stedman defends the higher cost, especially for the blade servers, from a pure ROI standpoint. According to his calculations, the ROI for the blade systems is equal to or better than that of rack-mounted servers, depending on the number of blades that are purchased. On a dollar-per-dollar basis, the break-even point is three blades, beyond which he would save about $2,000 per server by going the blade versus rack-mount route.
Factor in lower costs for power, cooling and floor space, as well as other scalability considerations, and the balance shifts even further in favor of the blade technology.
A common mistake among SMBs is putting all their eggs in one technology basket. As Chautauqua learned, doing so exposes companies to unnecessary risk in the event of a disaster or system failure. But it can also hurt from a business perspective by hampering a company’s ability to meet user and customer data-access requirements.
For that reason, Stedman’s first action was to diversify the environment so that if the server failed again, the company wouldn’t be affected. This meant installing a second server for much-needed redundancy and ultimately looking to traditional and even next-generation storage and server technologies to address data-protection and customer-service issues.
Similarly, MediaTec Publishing, a Chicago-based magazine publisher, installed two Sun Solaris servers to support its content management system. The servers are configured in redundant fail-over/stand-by mode to protect against system failure or outage. The CMS acts as a staging tool for content that’s published online or in print and as an interface to MediaTec’s online archive of more than 35,000 articles.
The next step is to ensure the fundamentals, such as basic data protection policies and processes and plans for performance and capacity growth, are in place.
MediaTec invested in its first Fibre Channel SAN and an LTO-2 tape autoloader to address basic performance and backup issues. The company is also looking to a new HP StorageWorks SAN to further improve performance and deliver long-term capacity and redundancy improvements over its existing network-attached solution.
For Mark Jankiewicz, MediaTec’s director of information technology, the performance benefits of moving from NAS to a SAN justified the expense. Without the SAN, it can take up to 10 minutes to save the cover of one of the company’s print documents. Here again, IT’s value is measured in user accessibility, or Quality of Service (QoS).
Once the basics are addressed, SMBs can start looking at new technologies. These include virtualization, to consolidate physical storage and improve server utilization; tiered storage, to ensure data is on the right storage device at the right time; and data de-duplication, to reduce the amount of redundancy that’s consuming costly disk space or clogging networks.
While many SMBs are struggling with basic IT priorities, Elektrofilm Digital Studios, a provider of media services for the entertainment industry, is a good example of a small company that takes IT to the next level by leveraging multiple storage technologies for both tactical and strategic purposes.
Though modest in terms of head count, with about 50 employees, Elektrofilm’s data requirements are anything but small; in fact, at 900 terabytes, its total storage capacity is comparable to that of a much larger organization, as is its infrastructure. From a storage perspective, the company relies on a mix SAN, NAS and hierarchical storage management hardware and applications to support increasingly demanding service-level agreements.
“While we do face our share of fires, our organization strives to be highly proactive with a multiyear technology road map that allows us to mitigate risk and increase efficiencies,” explains Jason Williamson, senior vice president and CIO at Elektrofilm.
Williamson also uses these technologies to give him better insight into the type and value of the data he has stored in this environment — information that can be used for competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Use these tips to develop a storage plan for your company:
- First, focus on the basics. In many cases, this means figuring out what type of data you have and its value to your business.
- Establish baseline service level agreements, including Recovery Time Objectives (RTOs), Recovery Point Objectives (RPOs) and user access objectives.
- Don’t choose a solution based on features and functions and then map those to your applications. Instead, do the opposite: Focus on application RTOs and RPOs, and then match technologies accordingly. It’s a subtle — but important — difference that could have costly consequences.
- Plan for the future. Match technologies and product features to both short- and long-term requirements. Only you know how your business runs today and what future demands may evolve.