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Firm Builds SAN After Merger

Posted by iMark - 2006-05-01

Any merger or acquisition can stress an IT staff, but few have to deal with combining 30 organizations in one shot.

That's what happened when Allied Capital Corp. acquired Advantage Sales and Marketing for $257 million and decided to consolidate what had been an umbrella group of 30 marketing firms into one company. The deal started Advantage's IT staff on a consolidation project that continues today -- nearly two years after the June 2004 acquisition and through a subsequent sale last month to J.W. Chids Associates and Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity for $1 billion.

"We had 30 different companies, and I think 30 different ways of doing things," Advantage's national technology director William Hiatt says. "That changed overnight for us."
 
As separate entities, Advantage's groups had direct attached servers in small offices around the country. The consolidation left it with 3,500 users, 553 servers, and an IT staff of about 45. That staff had to support a firm that claims revenue of more than $700 million annually and handles more than 1,200 clients, including DelMonte Corp., Quaker Oats, Tropicana, and Gatorade.

IT divided the project into two phases. The first phase was consolidating 35 disparate email systems, 30 Windows domains, and 60 SQL Servers into one corporate data center. The second phase consisted of deploying business applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), enterprise content management (ECM), and Business Intelligence.

Building a SAN, implementing virtualization, and consolidating email were the key processes of the first phase. Hiatt says Advantage looked at EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and StorageTek (now Sun) SANs before settling on StorageTek for a midrange system. Hiatt says there were two major factors: Cost - message board; and StorageTek sold the same systems through an OEM deal with Engenio that IBM, NCR, and Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) sell.

"We viewed it as an investment protection," he says. "If for some reason StorageTek said 'We're going to get out of storage business,' we still had Engenio arrays available from other vendors."

Advantage chose FaclonStor IPStor software for snapshots and replication and EMC's VMware to virtualize servers. "Before we employed a SAN, we had storage all over the place," Hiatt says. "We envisioned the day we would virtualize servers. If you go offline with two servers, it's not bad. Go offline with 100 servers, it's a different story."

Email management was perhaps the biggest headache of the initial phase. Hiatt says the average user email box came to 1 Gbyte, running the company-wide total to 3.5 Tbytes with a projected annual growth of 40 percent. He estimated he would have to add eight new Microsoft Exchange servers, storage disk, and licensing and maintenance that would have cost around $1 million up front and $225,000 in annual labor costs. He considered placing quotas on user email, but was overruled.

"We wanted to use quotas, but the legal department said, 'We don’t want any data on local computers, we want it on the server,'" he says." We tried to convince them that wasn't the best approach, but legal spoke and we had to listen."

He says Advantage evaluated email archiving software from CommVault, EMC, and Veritas. The firm settled on Veritas (now Symantec) Enterprise Vault because of its compression and archiving capabilities and integration with Outlook. The end result was an estimated 90 percent reduction in email storage that allowed Advantage to stick with one Exchange server.

The last piece of the networked storage puzzle for the first phase was a NAS system for file servers. Again, Advantage looked at the major players -- EMC and Network Appliance -- but late last year purchased two BlueArc Titan systems. Advantage uses one as a file server and the other for backup and recovery. Hiatt says he selected BlueArc gear because it is compatible with StorageTek disk and tape and competitively priced. (See BlueArc Joins StorageTek Alliance.)

Advantage is in the early states of the second phase of its data center initiative, with business applications either in the beta or evaluation stage. Until now, Advantage has outsourced those applications. "You can't deploy those applications unless you have your infrastructure up and running," Hiatt says.

Wide area files services (WAFS) is a longer term project for Advantage. Hiatt says he hasn't started evaluating products yet, but he will need a way to reduce WAN costs for connecting offices around the country.

"We consolidated a lot of smaller offices, but we still have a lot of file servers sitting out there," he says. "We have about 50 offices. It would be a lot easier if we had four, but that's where our clients are. We spend way too much on our WAN."



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