It didnt take William Polymenakos long to figure out that his new employer had problems.
When he joined Ecker Enterprises Inc., a Rosemont, Ill., residential and commercial building contracting services company, as technology director in March 2002, Polymenakos said he found an IT environment poised to create real difficulties for the company.
Ecker, which operates in four markets across the country and in job sites dispersed throughout its markets, had taken a decentralized approach to IT.
Hardware and software were overstressed, while inefficient DAS (direct-attached storage) systems and unreliable backups slowed business processes and put data at risk.
Many servers ran at 90 percent of capacity and couldnt support the newer business applications Ecker needed, Polymenakos said. Nightly backups of important data, such as that used by Eckers ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, were performed locally and failed regularly—and often for several days running.
“If we had a data disaster, we wouldnt be recovering back to yesterday,” recalled Polymenakos. “Wed be recovering back to last week or last month. Disaster recovery was a disaster waiting to happen.”
Because each of the companys locations—at the time, it had seven in five states—had set up its own DAS system, there was no standardization. Upgrades and new-application rollouts, meanwhile, required complete backups of each server. “We sort of took a small-office mentality and took it to a multilocation nationwide company,” said Polymenakos.
This situation just didnt work, and Polymenakos said he knew he would need outside help. That meant identifying an integrator that could provide needed technology expertise and product knowledge, he said. Such relationships, he said, are key to Eckers IT strategy, which centers on a lean staff that hires expert help as needed.
Polymenakos crafted a project toward which he was to apply his internal and outsourced personnel. By June 2002, he said, he had Ecker on a path to an IT overhaul that included a move to Microsoft Corp. Windows Server 2003 server and desktop platforms and Citrix Systems Inc. Presentation Server remote access to business information and desktop applications.
But Polymenakos said he had to fix the storage problems first. Without a stable data environment, he said, he was risking major damage to key corporate data should something go wrong during the upgrade. “If I couldnt protect the environment as it was,” he said, “all the rest of it became moot.”
Meantime, Polymenakos recalled, potential integration partners wouldnt touch the larger Microsoft/Citrix overhaul project. “Theyd say, Well, let me know when you grow up,” he said.
“And there was the selfish need of wanting to be able to get an honest nights sleep,” he joked.
It was two years before Ecker, with a small staff kept busy by day-to-day IT issues, was able to proceed.
Integrator StorCom Inc., of Geneva, Ill., was eventually brought in to help Ecker design and choose a storage solution.
Before selecting StorCom, however, Polymenakos said he considered other options. These included technology based on Fibre Channel networking, which he deemed too expensive and technically complex; NAS (network-attached storage) systems, which he believed lacked the customization he required; and an upgraded DAS system, which he worried could offer more storage capacity but would leave other issues unaddressed.
“[Ecker was] a typical small and medium-sized business customer,” recalled StorCom Sales Director Jeff James. “They wanted to take advantage of storage area network technology, which would give them better disk utilization, a central position of management and a central point of backing up their data.”
IP storage area network, or SAN, solutions use technologies such as TCP/IP and Ethernet networking, with which Polymenakos and his staff were already familiar, making them Polymenakos technologies of choice.
“Because we sell multiple products in the storage arena, we try to match specific technologies to the needs of the customer,” James said. “What IP SAN did for Ecker was lower the connectivity cost and the additional expertise that was required. It was a perfect fit.”
Polymenakos eventually narrowed the choice to two vendors. While he was impressed with a solution offered by LeftHand Networks Inc., he chose StoneFly Networks Inc.s SBA (StoneFly Backup Advantage), an IP SAN disk-to-disk solution that incorporated disk-to-tape backup from Quantum Corp. and backup and recovery software from CommVault Systems Inc.
Ecker is precisely the type of company that StoneFly reaches out to, according to StoneFly Technical Services Director Jack Mok, based in San Diego.
“Our focus really is the SMB market,” Mok said. “Were trying to provide high-end solutions to the SMB marketplace. Were able to do that because weve designed a cost-effective solution and because weve got a relationship with CommVault that allows us to provide a formidable solution at an affordable price.”
StorCom, meanwhile, helped Ecker with integration and training. “Instead of a stockpile of parts, I had a team of integrators who could step in and make this into an environment,” Polymenakos said.
“Its an outsourcing model,” StorComs James said. “Basically, we become their chief technology officer and part of their IT staff.”
StoneFly stayed in close contact to help create a solution that met Eckers specifications.
The first users were on the system by October 2004. Since then, Ecker has steadily added more: The project is now approximately 60 percent complete. Polymenakos said he expects full deployment of the Microsoft and Citrix technology, with solid backups available, by the end of this year.
Storage Upgrades Increase Productivity
Although months of work remain, according to Polymenakos, Ecker has already seen the storage upgrade produce substantial benefits.
First, the new system boosts storage capacity substantially. Rather than regularly running 90 percent full, Polymenakos said he gets alerts at 80 percent. (His aim is to put mitigation measures in place when capacity reaches 70 percent.)
Because of the old systems reliance on LANs, backups—when successful—seriously affected user performance, Polymenakos said, as disk-to-tape backups could take 9 hours, keeping users offline for long intervals.
That complicated the timing of backups, since Ecker operates across time zones.
With the IP SAN setup, the first set of disk-to-disk “snapshot” backups requires less than an hour; theyre usually finished by 1 a.m. daily and are performed at IT headquarters, Polymenakos said. Follow-up disk-to-tape backups are completely transparent to the user. “I can do the backup from the snapshot at 2 a.m. when it doesnt affect anybody,” he said.
Polymenakos said there hasnt been a failure in eight months. Total backup time has been cut by perhaps 90 percent, he estimated.
Restoring lost data is also much easier, Polymenakos said. The old system kept backup data on tape, sometimes making it difficult to find data and requiring a 30-minute restoration job. Now, with the data snapshots stored on disk, restores can take less than a minute. While Polymenakos doesnt expect to do more than one of these per month, he can now do so with greater ease and confidence.
Storage allocation changes are now easier and quicker. SBAs “push-button allocation” feature, Polymenakos estimated, can cut the time required from as much as 6 hours to 10 minutes—meaning, again, less downtime for Ecker users.
These results, Mok and James agreed, are typical of those companies moving to SAN solutions from DAS systems, such as the one Ecker used.
In addition, the system Ecker now has, Polymenakos said, is easily expandable, even if Ecker decides to broaden its national footprint again: New equipment wont require another storage overhaul, and growth in the costs of training and maintenance can be more easily kept within the companys financial means.
But the benefits that the storage upgrade has brought Ecker, Polymenakos said, are perhaps best measured in terms of time—not only his and his teams (the latter of which has since contracted by one member), but also in terms of the potential for lost productivity among Eckers staff in the field and in its offices.
Finally, by addressing its storage problems, said Polymenakos, Ecker has been able to begin its transition to the IT overhaul, the benefits of which have moved well beyond the desktop. (Illinois neighbor Peters & Associates Inc. is the integrator working with Ecker on the broader project.)
Eckers contractors, for example, traditionally spent substantial amounts of time, energy and gasoline shuttling to and from job sites to check data at their terminals. The new Citrix technology lets them see that data on-site.
“When guys are in a truck, theyre not doing what they need to do,” Polymenakos said. “All that windshield time was spent going to the office to touch a computer. Ive [taken] the computers to where they are.”
That fits neatly into what Polymenakos said is his and Eckers view of what IT should be doing at the company: supporting its growth, not putting out or worrying about fires.
“One of the overarching goals of this project is that I dont have to worry about whether e-mail is flowing every day,” Polymenakos said. “Time I spend trying to handhold a broken system is time Im not spending doing things that generate some value.”
David P. Marino-Nachison is a free-lance writer based in Washington.