Monday, April 16, 2012

Virtualization Simplifies Disaster Recovery for Insurance Broker Myron Steves While Delivering Efficiency and Agility Gains Too

Transcript of a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast on how small-and-medium businesses can improve disaster recovery through virtualization, while reaping additional benefits.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect.

We now present a sponsored podcast discussion on how insurance wholesaler Myron Steves & Co. developed and implemented an impressive IT disaster recovery (DR) strategy.

We'll see how small business Myron Steves made a bold choice to go essentially 100 percent server virtualized in 90 days. That then set the stage for a faster, cheaper, and more robust DR capability. It also helped them improve their desktop-virtualization delivery, another important aspect of maintaining constant business continuity.

Based in Houston, Texas, and supporting some 3,000 independent insurance agencies in that region, with many protected properties in the active hurricane zone at the Gulf of Mexico, Myron Steves needs to have all sources up and available, if and when severe storms strike. To help those less fortunate, employees need to be operational from home, if necessary, when a natural disaster occurs. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

We'll learn how the IT executives at Myron Steves adopted an advanced DR and virtualization approach to ensure that it can help its customers -- regardless of the circumstances. At the same time, they also set themselves up for improved IT efficiency and agility for years to come.

Here to share in more detail on how a small- to medium-sized business (SMB) can modernize DR completely for far better responsiveness is Tim Moudry, Associate Director of IT at Myron Steves & Co. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Moudry: Hello. How are you doing, Dana?

Gardner: I am doing great. Thanks for being with us. We're also here with William Chambers, IT Operations Manager at Myron Steves. And welcome to you also, William.

William Chambers: Thanks. Hello. How are you?

Gardner: We're doing well. Tim, let me throw a first question out at you. Hurricane Ike, back in 2008, was the second costliest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. and, fortunately, it was a near miss for you and your data center, but as I understand, this was a wake-up call for you on what your DR approach lacked.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from that particular incident, and what spurred you on then to make some changes?

Moudry: Before Hurricane Ike hit, William and I saw an issue and developed a project that we presented to our executive committee. Then, when Hurricane Ike came about, which was during this time that we were presenting this, it was an easy sell.

When Hurricane Ike came, we were on another DR system. We were testing it, and it was really cumbersome. We tried to get servers up and running. We stayed there to recover one whole day and never got even a data center recovered.

Easy sell


W
hen we came to VMware, we made a proposal to our executive committee, and it was an easy sell. We did the whole project for the price of one year of our old DR system.

Gardner: What was your older system? Were you doing it on an outsourced basis? How did you do it?

Moudry: We were with another company, and they gave us facilities to recover our data. They were also doing our backups.

We went to that site to recover systems and we had a hard time recovering anything. So William and I were chatting and thinking that there's got to be a better way. That’s when we started testing a lot of the other virtualization software. We came to VMware, and it was just so easy to deploy.

William was the one that did all that, and he can go on with that more later, but we just came to VMware and it became a little bit easier.

Gardner: Tell me about the requirements. What was it that you wanted to do differently or better, after recognizing that you got away with Ike, but things may not go so well the next time? William, what were your top concerns about change?

Chambers: Our top concerns were just avoiding what happened during Ike. In the building we're in in Houston, we were without power for about a week. So that was the number one cause for virtualization.

Number two was just the amount of hardware. Somebody actually called us and said, "Can you take these servers somewhere else and plug them in and make them run?" Our response was no.

Moudry: We were running 70 servers at the time.

Chambers: They were the physical servers.

Moudry: Yeah, so that was about four racks of servers.

Chambers: That was the lead into virtualization. If we wanted everything to be mobile like that, we had to go with a different route.

Gardner: So you had sort of a two-pronged strategy. One was to improve your DR capabilities, but embracing virtualization as a means to do that also set you up for some other benefits. How did that work? Was there a nice synergy between these that played off one another?

Chambers: Once you get into it, you think, "Well, okay, this is going to make us mobile, and we'll be able to recover somewhere else quicker," but then you start seeing other features that you can use that would benefit what you are doing at smaller physical size. It's just the mobility of the data itself, if you’ve got storage in place that will do it for you. Recovery times were cut down to nothing.

Simpler to manage


There was ease of backups, everything that you have to do on a daily maintenance schedule. It just made everything simpler to manage, faster to manage, and so on.

Gardner: I talk to large enterprises a lot and I hear about issues when they are dealing with 10,000 seats, but you are a smaller enterprise, about 200 employees, is that right?

Moudry: Yeah, about 200.

Gardner: And so for you as an SMB, what requirements were involved? You obviously don't have unlimited resources and you don't have a huge IT staff. What was an important aspect from that vantage point?

Chambers: It’s probably what any other IT shop wants. They want stability, up-time, manageability, and flexibility. That’s what any IT shop would want, but we're a small shop. So we had to do that with fewer resources than some of the bigger Exxons and stuff like that.

Moudry: And they don’t want it to cost an arm and a leg either.

Gardner: For the benefit of our listeners, let’s talk a little bit about Myron Steves. Tell us about the company, what you do, and why having availability of your phones, your email, and all of your systems is so important to what you do for your customers.

Moudry: We're an insurance broker. We're not a carrier. We are between carriers and agents. With our people being on the phone, up-time is essential, because they're on the phone quoting all the time. That means if we can’t answer our phones, the insurance agent down the street is going to go pick up the phone, and they're going to get the business somewhere else.

Now, we're trying to get more green in the industry, and we are trying to print less paper



Also, we do have claims. We don't process all claims, but we do some claims, mainly for our stuff that's on the coast. After a hurricane, that’s when people are going to want that.

Now, we're trying to get more green in the industry, and we are trying to print less paper. That means we're trying to put the policies up there on the website, a PDF or something like that. Most likely, when they write the policy, they're not going to download that policy and keep it. It’s just human nature. They're going to say, "They’ve got it up there on the Web."

We have to be up all the time. When a disaster strikes, they are going to say, "I need to get my policy," and then they are going to want to go to our website to download that policy, and we have to be up. It’s the worst time I guess.

Chambers: And not many people are going to pack their paper policy when they evacuate or something like that.

Gardner: So the phones are essential. I also talk with a lot of companies and I ask them, which applications they choose to virtualize first. They have lots of different rationales for that, but you guys just went kit and caboodle. Tell me about the apps that are important to you and why you went 100 percent virtualized in such a short time?

SAN storage

Chambers: We did that because we’ve got applications running on our servers, things like rating applications, emails, our core applications. A while back, we separated the data volumes from the physical server itself. So the data volume is stored on a storage area network (SAN) that we get through an iSCSI.

That made it so easy for us to do a physical-to-virtual (P2V) conversion on the physical server. Then in the evenings, during our maintenance period, we shut that physical server down and brought up the virtual connected to the SAN one, and we were good. That’s how we got through it so quickly.

Gardner: So having taken that step of managing your data first, I also understand you had some virtual desktop activity go on there earlier. That must have given you some experience and insights into virtualization as well.

Chambers: Yeah, it did.

Moudry: William moved us to VMware first and then after we saw how VMware worked so well, we tried out VMware View and it was just a no-brainer, because of the issues that we had before with Citrix and because of the way Citrix works. One session affects all the others. That’s where VMware shines, because everybody is on their independent session.

Gardner: I notice that you're also a Microsoft shop. Did you look at their virtualization or DR? You mentioned that Citrix didn’t work out for you. How come you didn’t go with Microsoft?

Then he downloaded the free version of VMware and tried the same thing on that. We got it up in two or three days.



Chambers: We looked at one of their products first. We've used the Virtual PC and Virtual Server products. Once you start looking at and evaluating theirs, it’s a little more difficult setup. It runs well, but at that time, I believe it was 2008, they didn’t have anything like the vCenter Site Recovery Manager (SRM) that I could find. It was a bit slower. All around, the product just wasn’t as good as the VMware product was.

Moudry: I remember when William was loading it. I think he spent probably about 30 days loading Microsoft and he got a couple of machines running on it. It was probably about two or three machines on each host. I thought, "Man, this is pretty cool." But then he downloaded the free version of VMware and tried the same thing on that. We got it up in two or three days?

Chambers: I think it was three days to get the host loaded and then re-center all the products, and then it was great.

Moudry: Then he said that it was a little bit more expensive, but then we weighed out all the cost of all the hardware that we were going to have to spend with Microsoft. He loaded the VMware and he put about 10 VMs on one host.

Chambers: At that time, yeah.

Increased performance


Moudry: Yeah, it was running great. It was awesome. I couldn’t believe that that we could get that much performance from one machine. You'd think that running 10 servers, you would get the most performance. I couldn’t believe that those 10 servers were running just as fast on one server that they did on 10.

Chambers: That was another key benefit. The footprint of ESXi was somewhat smaller than a Microsoft.

Moudry: It used the memory so much more efficiently.

Gardner: So these are the things that are super-important to SMBs, when you’ve got a free version to try. It's the ease of installation, higher degree of automation, particularly when it came to multiple products, and then that all important footprint, the cost of hardware and then the maintenance and skills that go along with that. So that sounds like a pretty compelling case for SMB choice.

Before we move on, you mentioned vSphere, vCenter Site Recovery Manager, and View. Is that it? Are you up to the latest versions of those? What do you actually have in place and running?

Chambers: We’ve got both in production right now, vCenter 4.1, and vCenter 5.0. We’re migrating from 4.1 to 5.0. Instead of doing the traditional in-place upgrade, we’ve got it set up to take a couple of hosts out of the production environment, build them new from scratch, and then just migrate VMs to it in the server environment.

It went by so fast that it just happened that way. We were ahead of schedule on our time-frames and ahead on all of our budget numbers.



It's the same thing with the View environment. We’ve got enough hosts so we can take a couple out, build the new environment, and then just start migrating users to it.

Gardner: As I understand, you went to 99.999 percent virtualization in three months, is that correct?

Chambers: Yes.

Gardner: Was that your time-table, or did that happen faster than you expected?

Chambers: It happened much quicker than we thought. Once we did a few of the conversions, of the physical servers that we had, and it went by so fast that it just happened that way. We were ahead of schedule on our time-frames and ahead on all of our budget numbers. Once we got everything in our physical production environment virtualized, then we could start building new virtual servers to replace the ones that we had converted, just for better performance.

Gardner: So that's where you can bring more of those green elements, blades and so forth, which you mentioned is an important angle here. Of course you’re doing this for DR, but the process of moving from physical to virtual can be challenging for some folks. There are disruptions along the way. Did any of your workers seem put out, or were you able to do this without too much of disruption in terms of the migration process?

Without disruption

Chambers: We were able to do it without disruption, and that was one of the better things that happened. We could convert a physical server during the day, while people were still using it, or create that VM for it. Then, at night, we took the physical down and brought the virtual up, and they never knew it.

Gardner: So this is an instance where being an SMB works in your favor, because a large organization has to flip the switch on massive data centers. It's a little bit more involved. Sometimes weekends or even weeks are involved. So that’s good.

How about some help? Did you have any assistance in terms of a systems integrator, professional services, or anything along those lines?

Chambers: On the things that we’ve built here, we like to have other people come in and look at it and make sure we did it properly. So we’ll have an evaluation of it, after we build it and get everything in place.

Gardner: It sounds like you’re pretty complete though. That’s impressive. Another thing that I hear in the market is that when people make this move to virtualization and then they bring in the full DR capabilities, they see sort of a light bulb go on. "Wow. I can move my organization around, not just physically but I have more choices."

We’re going from a DR model to a high-availability business continuity, just to make sure everything is up all the time.



Some people are calling this cloud, as they’re able to move things around and think about a hybrid model, where they have some on their premises or in their own control, and then they outsource in some fashion to others. Now that you've done this, has this opened your eyes to some other possibilities, and what does that mean for you as an IT organization?

Chambers: It did exactly that. We’re going from a DR model to a high-availability business continuity, just to make sure everything is up all the time.

Moudry: That’s our next project. We’re taking what we did in the past and going to the next level, because right now we have it to where we have to fail over. We’re doing it like a SAN replication and we have to do a failover to another site.

William is trying to get that to more of a high-availability, where we just bring it down here and bring it up there, and it's a lot less downtime. So we’re working on phase two of the process now.

Gardner: All right. When you say here and near, I think you're talking about Houston and then Austin. Are those your two sites?

Moving to colos


Moudry: Right now it’s Houston and San Antonio, but we are trying to move -- we are moving all of our equipment to colos and we are going to be in Phoenix and Houston. So all the structure will be in colos, Houston, and Phoenix.

Gardner: So that’s even another layer of protection, wider geographic spread, and just reducing your risk in general. Let’s take a moment and look at what you’ve done and see in a bit more detail what it’s gotten for you. Return on investment (ROI), do you have any sense, having gone through this, what you are doing now that perhaps covered the cost of doing it in the first place?

Moudry: We spent about $350,000 a year in our past DR solution. We didn’t renew that, and the VMware DR paid for itself in the year.

Gardner: So you were able to recover your cost pretty quickly, and then you’ve got ongoing lower costs?

Moudry: Well, we are not buying equipment like we used to. We had 70 servers and four racks. It compressed down to one rack. How many blades are we running, William?

We're working with automation. We're getting less of a footprint for our employees. You just don’t hire as many.



Chambers: We're running 12 blades, and the per year maintenance cost on every server that we had compared to what we have now is 10 percent now of what it was.

Gardner: I suppose this all opens up more capacity, so that you can add on more data and more employees. You can grow, but without necessarily running out of capacity. So that's another benefit.

Moudry: We can probably do that, if we needed employees, but we're working with automation. We're getting less of a footprint for our employees. You just don’t hire as many.

Gardner: As you pursue colos, then you’ve got somebody else. They can worry about the air-conditioning, protection, security, and so forth. So that’s a little less burden for you.

Moudry: That’s the whole idea, for sure.

Gardner: How about some other metrics of success? Has this given you some agility now. Maybe your business folks come down and say, "We’d like you to run a different application," or "We're looking to do something additional to what we have in the past?" You can probably adapt to that pretty quickly.

Copying the template

Moudry: Making new servers is nothing. William has a template. He just copies it and renames it.

Chambers: The deployment of new ones is 20 minutes. Then, we’ve got our development people who come down and say, "I need a server just like the production server to do some testing on before we move that into production." That takes 10 minutes. All I have to do is clone that production server and set it up for them to use for development. It’s so fast and easy that they can get their work done much quicker.

Moudry: Rather than loading the Windows disk and having to load a server and get it all patched up.

Chambers: It gives you a like environment. In the past, where they tested on a test server you built, that’s not exactly the same as the production server. They could have bugs that they didn’t even know about yet, and that just cuts down on the development time just a lot.

Gardner: And so you're able to say yes, instead of, "Get in line behind everybody else." That’s a nice thing to do.

Chambers: Yes.

Gardner: Any advice for folks who are looking at the same type of direction, higher virtualization, gaining the benefits of DR’s result and then perhaps having more of that agility and flexibility. What might you have learned in hindsight that you could share with some other folks?

We’ve got a lot of people working at home now, just because of the View environment and things like that.



Chambers: We’ve attended several conferences and forums. I think there’s more caution that people are using. They want to get into virtualization but they're just not sure how it runs.

If you are going to use it, then get in and start using it on a small basis. Just to do a proof of concept, check performance, do all the due diligence that you need, and get into it. It will really pay off in the end.

Moudry: Have a change control system that monitors what you change. When we first went over there, William was testing out the VMs, and I couldn’t believe, as I was saying earlier, how fast it is. We have people who are on the phones. They're quoting insurance. They have to have the speed. If it hesitates, and that customer on the phone takes longer to give our people the information and our people has hard time quoting it, we’re going to lose the business.

When William put some of these packages over to the VM software, and it was not only running as fast, but it was running faster on the VM than it was on a hard box. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how fast it was.

Chambers: And there was another thing that we saw. We’ve got a lot of people working at home now, just because of the View environment and things like that. I think we’ve kind of neglected our inside people, because they'd rather work in a View environment, because it's so much faster than sitting on a local desktop.

Backbone speed

Moudry: Well, the View, and all that being on the chassis itself is all backbone speed. When a person is working on the View, he is working right next to servers, rather than going through Cat 5 cable and through switches. He is on the backbone.

When somebody works at home, they're at lightning speeds. Upstairs is a ghost town now, because everybody wants to work from home. That’s part of our DR also. The model is, "We have a disaster here. You go work from home." That means we don’t have to put people into offices anywhere, and with the Voice over IP, it's like their call-center. They just call from home.

Gardner: I hope it never comes to this, but if there is a natural disaster type of issue, they could just pick up and drive 100 miles to where it's good. They’re up and running and they’ve got a mobile office.

Moudry: The way we did it, if they want to go 100 miles and check into hotel, they can work from the hotel That’s no problem.

Gardner: Let's look to the future unintended consequences that sometimes kick in on this. I've heard from other folks, and it sounds like with these View desktops that you’re going to have some compliance and security benefits, better control over data. Any metrics or payback along those lines?

There is no need for anybody to take our data out of this data center, because they can work from View anywhere they want to.



Moudry: We just were going over some insurance policies and stuff like that for digital data protection. One of the biggest problems that they were mentioning is employees putting data on laptops and then the laptop goes away, get stolen or whatever. There is no need for anybody to take our data out of this data center, because they can work from View anywhere they want to. Anywhere in the world, they can work from View. There's no reason to take the data anywhere. So that’s a security benefit.

Chambers: They can work from different devices now, too. I know we’ve got laptops out there, iPads, different type of mobile devices, and it's all secure.

Gardner: Any other future directions that you could share with us? You've told us quite a bit about what your plans are, colos and further data center locations, perhaps moving more towards mobile device support. Did we miss anything? What's the next step?

vMotion between sites


Moudry: As we said before we’re colo-ing VMware, we’re not able to vMotion between sites, but we’re kind of waiting for VMware to improve that a little bit. They'll probably come in down the road a little. But, that would probably be the next thing that I’d want is the vMotion between sites.

Gardner: And why is that important to you?

Moudry: Well, because it's a high-availability, they meet a true high-availability, because you just vMotion all your stuff to the other side and nobody even knows.

We’ve vMotioned servers between the hosts, and nobody even knows they moved. It's up all the time. Nobody even knows that we changed hardware on them. So that’s a great thing.

Gardner: It's just coming out of the cloud.

Moudry: Yeah.

Chambers: Sometimes, there may be a need to shut down an entire rack of equipment in one of our colos. Then we’d have to migrate everything.

Gardner: So an insurance policy for an insurance provider?

Chambers: Yes.

Moudry: Yeah.

Gardner: I'm afraid we’ll have to leave it there, gentlemen. We’ve been talking about how insurance wholesaler Myron Steves & Co. has developed and implemented an impressive IT DR strategy We’ve seen how an even small-to-medium-sized business can create business continuity for its operations, and make IT more efficient and agile to its business users. I’d like to thank our guests, Tim Moudry, Associate Director of IT at Myron Steves & Co. Thanks so much, Tim.

Moudry: Thank you.

Gardner: And also, William Chambers, IT Operations Manager there at Myron Steves. Thank you, William.

Chambers: You're very welcome, thank you.

Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. Thanks again to our audience for listening, and come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.

Transcript of a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast on how small-and-medium businesses can improve disaster recovery through virtualization, while reaping additional benefits. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2012. All rights reserved.

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