If patience truly is a virtue, then Aaron Kostyu is probably viewed by his peers as a very virtuous man. As director of IT for Lowndes County, a county of 102,000 people in southern Georgia near the Florida border, Kostyu spent the better part of two years searching for the perfect, single-vendor storage and backup solution for his countys IT systems.
Still, despite the time spent in the search, time was definitely not on his side, as Kostyu realized that the countys existing system was already way too labor-intensive and would not keep up with the countys ever-growing backup and storage requirements over the long haul.
At the time, the county was operating 30 servers containing public records data including property deeds, marriage certificates, engineering documents and other government records, and it would soon be moving beyond its capacity to keep up with the growing volume.
“The amount of data was beyond our ability to back it up. We could only do the backup on live data after-hours because of the performance hits on the servers using traditional backup methods,” Kostyu said.
Whats more, “We didnt have a good method to do what we needed to do. We had outgrown our solution, and only critical backups were getting done,” Kostyu said.
Kostyu determined that the county needed a new, modern SAN (storage area network) and an automated backup system that could store public records and survive changes in technology. But after he talked to several different vendors, none could provide him with everything he needed in a single-vendor package.
What he said he didnt initially understand was that the countys backup needs required an a la carte solution from several different vendors and that it would take a systems integrator to help him select the best components for each job.
Then Kostyu met Stephen Ayoub, account manager for systems integrator Optimus Solutions, in Norcross, Ga.
Ayoub said that he was sitting in his office outside Atlanta one day in mid-2003 when he decided to give Lowndes County a cold call as part of his regular sales calls. He said that he instantly connected (personality-wise) with Kostyu and understood what needed to be done.
“They were looking at a backup and disaster recovery strategy. They had talked to four or five different vendors, and nobody could articulate what they were trying to do back to them. I went down there and had an hour-and-a-half light board session with them, and it just clicked. I left there with a conceptual design and just attacked it from there,” Ayoub said.
In his assessment, Ayoub identified four major areas that needed to be addressed. First, as was clear to everyone concerned, Lowndes County had outgrown its backup infrastructure and needed to update it. The county IT department did not have enough data storage space; the direct-attach storage model the county was using was no longer adequate for the demands on it; the county needed WORM storage technology to store and retrieve government records regardless of the technology in place in the future; and, finally, it needed inexpensive, automated off-site data replication.
Rather than recommending that Lowndes officials go with a single vendor to tackle all these challenges, Ayoub said he suggested a solution that involved a mix of brand-name vendors such as IBM, EMC Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., using the best of breed from each one.
“What made it a strange solution is that it is really mixing technologies, which you dont normally see from a VAR [like us],” Ayoub said. “Most VARs sell products from [a single vendor]. We are unique in that we purchase products from [different companies] and we sell competing products and we have expertise and we are really good at [working with] them.”
For the storage pieces of the solution, Ayoub said that he selected the EMC Clariion CX300 as the storage subsystem and the EMC Centera for the WORM drive technology. He said he recommended these solutions because they provided the exact technology Lowndes County needed in a package that also required very little maintenance or oversight from the Lowndes County IT staff.
“EMC does everything for you. They hold the keys to the box, so its less work for the [Lowndes County] staff, and the GUI … makes it very easy to use,” Ayoub said.
Kostyu said he has been very satisfied with the results so far. “The EMC equipment has been just a dream to work with, and the company monitors it on a regular basis,” Kostyu said. If EMC detects any problems with the system, he said, they e-mail him and arrange to come in to do maintenance before being asked or before the problem causes larger issues.
It was also very important that Ayoub act as the point person for the project and install a solution that was ready to use with little tinkering by him or his staff, Kostyu said.
Staying on Point
“I told Stephen and Optimus from the get-go that one of the qualifications of being a vendor for Lowndes County was that I needed [a] turnkey solution because I had [too small a staff] to do such a large job. It was important to us to be involved in the process. I could afford the manpower to manage the project and to manage it once it was in-house, but I did not have the manpower to implement,” Kostyu said.
In addition to choosing the storage solution, Ayoub said, he chose the IBM TSM (Tivoli Storage Manager) to handle backup. Optimus added value to this solution by building its own custom front end to make it easier for Lowndes County to manage the backups.
“When installed properly, and thats the key, [IBM Tivoli] is very easy to manage, and it scales to the largest degree,” Ayoub said. “We [designed] a custom GUI … that sits on top of that that makes it easy to use and very scalable.”
An added benefit to the TSM solution was making it easy to transfer files over existing IP lines, saving a lot of money over using more expensive fiber lines, Kostyu said. “I had the [IP] bandwidth and security between the two sites (the main IT building and the off-site storage facility), and we were able to save $30,000 by doing it smarter.”
An especially surprising benefit of working with Optimus, Kostyu said, was that the company allowed his staff to work in the Optimus computer lab in Atlanta before the system was installed. The result was that staff members had more confidence in their ability to work with the solution components, a major point, given the size and importance of this investment.
For Ayoub, the mix of vendors meant he had to not only manage a tricky installation but also deal with each vendor, which wanted to supply the total solution, he said.
“You play the political game pretty much the best you can,” Ayoub said. When he spoke to the vendors, he explained they were getting one piece of the business, and they had to deal with that to get [any of] the business. “When I told EMC about this deal, I told them we were using IBM Tivoli for the backup solution and they could not push Legato [EMCs line of backup and recovery solutions], but, of course, they did,” he said.
Kostyu said that, except for some problems with the HP tape system, the system has been flawless, and Optimus has continued to work with Lowndes County to solve the tape system issues. He said that working with Optimus has been one of his most positive vendor experiences, and he hopes to continue working with the company on other projects in the future.
“Optimus had knowledge of the big picture of the storage area network, not just a specific vendors picture; the ability to choose [the] best of that picture; and the knowledge to implement it. The knowledge, professionalism and the expertise with which they carried out their job is a cut above [the experience Ive had] with other vendors,” Kostyu said.
Ron Miller is a freelance writer in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.