Many small businesses rely just as heavily on information technology as large enterprises, yet too few bother to implement plans or technology for protecting their systems and data against disaster. What would happen if your servers went down, or you lost data for some other reason? How much business would you lose? How much productivity? How much credibility with customers?
Companies that understand the importance of information systems are starting to take steps to protect their data assets. EvensonBest LLC, a New York-based contract office furniture reseller and installer, is a good case in point. The company recently installed software from Xosoft, a vendor of "business continuity" solutions. EvensonBest is using two Xosoft programs WANsyncHA (the HA stands for High Availability) and Data Rewinder.
WANsyncHA continually replicates the data on a main server in one location to a backup server in another over a wide area network (hence the WAN part). If the main server goes down, the system automatically "fails over" to the backup server. The Data Rewinder software lets EvensonBest "rewind" to an earlier time in the life of a server before some catastrophic event hardware failure, virus corrupted the data. This prevents the WANsyncHA system from blithely replicating bad data.
EvensonBest is not your average office furniture reseller or your average small business. While it employs only 150 people, the company's annual revenues are in the $500 million range. Not many firms, big or small, generate over $3 million in revenues per full-time employee. One reason EvensonBest does is that it's "very, very automated," says Martin Silverman, director of IT. That means information systems are absolutely crucial to the company's success.
"There is never a time," Silverman says, "when our systems can be down. At three o'clock in the morning, we have people working somewhere. This is really one of our competitive edges."
Data, Data Everywhere
EvensonBest typically works with the Manhattan offices of big Fortune 500 companies for companies such as Time Inc., Deutsch Bank and Computer Associates, but it also designs office spaces, selling and installing furniture all over the world for these clients. The company has permanent offices and data centers, with mostly Microsoft servers, in "three or four locations." Silverman is a little vague about how many and where, for data security reasons, he says. It also often sets up temporary project offices.
EvensonBest maintains multiple data centers in part so that the data resides where its people work. The company often moves huge computer-aided design (CAD) files, and it saves money and time by not sending them over the WAN. It also wanted to be able to store data in multiple locations to help ensure business continuity "because we're in Manhattan," Silverman says, referring to the company's main offices, "and we live in a troubled world."
EvensonBest previously used a proprietary backup and recovery system it developed, but that system would only let the company recover data from up to about two hours before an outage or disaster took place.
"Increasingly we didn't find that acceptable," Silverman says. "We wanted to go right up to just a few minutes before the point we'd lose connectivity. And we wanted to be able to use that [replicated] data in real time in the other location if something happened to the location where the data [originated]."
You Gotta Shop Around
He knew there were new solutions that provided this kind of functionality. Silverman narrowed the possibilities to four Xosoft, Veritas from Symantec, Neverfail from Conspectus and Double-Take from Flexsys. "We allocated time to really kick the tires on those four. Choosing Xosoft was a no-brainer," he says.
For starters, Silverman and his team liked the fact that the Xosoft people were very knowledgeable and responsive. If EvensonBest had questions while it was testing the product What's this for? Why did you do it that way? Xosoft always provided answers quickly, he says.
More importantly, at that time Xosoft was the only one of the four contenders that provided the Data Rewinder capability. "[One competitor] talked about having it available several months down the road," Silverman says. "But Xosoft was the only one that had it available right from the start."
The Data Rewind product was crucial. It meant that if hardware failed or a virus corrupted data, EvensonBest could "rewind" to an earlier time in the data replication history and continue from there, rather than replicating data that was already corrupted. "That's a huge capability," he says.
Since the company started using WANsyncHA, Xosoft has gone one better. The software can now test the backup database's viability to ensure that it's not corrupted and that it could be activated immediately in the event of an outage. WANsyncHA stops replicating momentarily three or four times a day and checks database viability, then goes back to replicating.
"That way you're not going to get the situation where you're merrily replicating for six months and only find out later that you haven't got good data," he says.
Easy Ain't Cheap
WANsyncHA is a serious enterprise-grade solution, but Silverman was also impressed by how easy it was to install and use. "One of the competitors wanted to send an engineer to stay with us a couple of days [to install their product] it was built into the sale price," he says. "It took me under 30 minutes to set up Xosoft."
It's not just that he's a trained technologist either, Silverman insists. "If I had to, I could work with something more complex, but I'm here to tell you, this software does what more complex products do without the complexity." It's simple enough that even non-technical small-business managers could get it up and running themselves, he says. "It's one of the simplest products I've rolled out in a long, long time."
However, the Xosoft solutions don't come cheap. A license for WANsyncHA costs $3,500 per server for file servers, and $5,200 per server for SQL, Oracle or Exchange databases. Data Rewinder prices start at $25,000. But EvensonBest found it easy to justify the cost. "We crunched the numbers for what it would cost our systems to be down for [a given length of] time, then we looked at the cost of the product. It was not an issue."
The Xosoft products are not perfect, though you wouldn't know it to hear Silverman talk about it almost. One of the features he likes best is that the software provides browser-based reporting on replication history and database viability testing. But Silverman wants it to be possible for to access the reports while mobile from a PDA smartphone.
"We've talked to EvensonBest about the idea of adding the smartphone capability, so you could log in with a [PalmOne] Treo [Smartphone] or something like that," Silverman says. "That's one of the things I like about them. They're so leading edge and very receptive to suggestions."
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.
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