Proof of survival

7 Oct 2003

If laws on corporate governance and new virus strains weren’t enough to convince companies to think about business continuity and backup plans, maybe the recent spate of blackouts that crippled four national grids will persuade even the most sceptical chief executive officer that a meeting with the chief information officer might be useful.

Research from IDC confirms that spending on this branch of IT is picking up. One of the firm’s analysts, Martin Hingly, was at last week’s launch of a collaborative approach to storage and disaster recovery that saw the coming together of Dell, EMC, Esat BT and Nortel. He set the scene with a brief history, from motorbike couriers physically taking tapes from one location to another, through to modern-day software that can guarantee data delivery independent of a server’s existence.

The problem with the shiny new solution sets, according to an IDC survey, is that customers want them to be cheaper and easier to understand. This, in part, explains the project in Limerick. Selling business continuity and backup is a tough job and a rare example of customers spending millions on something that they hope they never have to use. A bit like David Beckham buying his wife a recording studio.

With Dell and EMC supplying the storage, Esat BT and Nortel providing the network connectivity, it’s a collaboration that has delivered a proof of concept facility where European customers can fly into southern Ireland to see a real-time demonstration of how to survive a system shutdown.

What differentiates business continuity from pure storage and backup was explained as the timeframe it takes to a get a business up and running after a system collapse. An EMC survey was on hand to demonstrate that if you can’t get back up quickly, you go could go down forever. More than 40pc of companies that experience an information-related disaster never reopen.

Nigel Ghent of EMC pushed the point further: “At the heart of it you are protecting brand integrity. The price of implementation is a trade-off of risk and cost.”

None of the companies had any statistics on the success rate for backup plans but as one speaker pointed out, few companies want to talk about it. This is personal stuff for firms, wrapped up in issues of shareholder confidence and corporate governance.

So who’s buying into it? The finance sector has legal requirements to keep customer transactional records so it is no coincidence that this is where most business is done. E-tailing and government were also identified as ripe for the solutions.

However, business continuity isn’t just about IT solutions. Martin Hingly talked about the importance of corporate culture and people. “Technology isn’t enough,” he said, “It’s about how a business is organised. Democratic structures are usually a mess and they don’t have the structures in place to increase the efficiencies in their computing. Hierarchical businesses will do it better.”

The actual technology is becoming increasingly complex and advancing at an incredible rate. As Dell’s Kevin Libert put it: “A new wave of solutions is happening simply because they can. Some of the connectivity you just couldn’t have done before.” And while costs have dropped, Libert was still very clear about customer needs. “They want assurance and that’s what the proof of concept facility is about.”

The dual-centre site runs between Dell’s Application Solution Centre in Limerick and EMC’s Solutions Operations Centre in Cork. What it offers is an interoperability-tested solution for wide area mirroring. In this case it spans the 60-mile distance between the two towns, with the data backed up from one centre to the other within moments of a disaster.

We saw a real time enactment watching EMC’s VisualSAN software depict a server failure and the subsequent real-time transfer from one facility to the other. Email that might have been lost in the collapse magically reappeared in Cork courtesy of the continuity software.

Customers can come in and see for themselves, with their own software set replicated in the facility. It takes between a week and two weeks to install the customer’s architecture and then a day or so to emulate how it would handle a system failure.

Naturally, this can never be an off-the-shelf solution. Just as well because this one doesn’t come cheap. The combined hardware and network on show cost in the region of $3000,000 plus a further $50,000 a month for the connectivity. As Libert pointed out — no doubt to the relief of any potential customers — the EMC-Dell set up is not typical. Most organisations, for example, would be spending closer to $4,000 a month for the connectivity.

When Chris Sweetapple says that Nortel is looking to sell beyond the traditional base of large corporates and into medium sized enterprise, you can understand why they need proof of concept. No one ever sold a car with fancy diagrams of a combustion engine. You have to take the customer for a spin.

By Ian Campbell