WAFS reins in remote office backup

By Kevin Komiega

Wide area file services (WAFS) technology is evolving. Once known simply for speeding up file access at remote locations and improving bandwidth utilization over WANs, WAFS products are now being wrapped with applications and tools such as data de-duplication and virtualization to become the foundation for a new approach to moving, protecting, and sharing data over distances.

A recent survey of storage professionals at Fortune 1000 organizations, conducted by TheInfoPro (TIP) market research firm, shows that WAFS purchasing is on the rise and is having a noticeable impact on the overall market for traditional backup-and-recovery software. WAFS is emerging as a viable option for consolidating the backup and recovery of data from remote and branch offices.

Click here to enlarge image

TheInfoPro survey also indicates the primary reasons why users are turning to WAFS (see figure).

More and more WAFS users of all sizes and across a variety of industries are looking beyond the file sharing and WAN acceleration features of the technology and using their WAFS software and hardware to reorganise the remote office backup process.

File sharing plus DR

Connecticut-based Bernard Jacobs Mellet USA is the US operation of South Africa’s largest brokerage and financial services firm. The company also has offices in London. The firm turned to WAFS technology from Availl when its data-sharing capabilities slowed to a crawl.

The firm has 13 offices in South Africa, which serve a combined roster of 300 traders and researchers, all of whom share half of a single T1 line. In addition, the smaller London office is without the aid of a full-time IT professional. Paul Csaby, IT manager at Bernard Jacobs, says the situation was reaching critical mass.

“South Africa is terrible when it comes to infrastructure connectivity. We were having to zip huge presentations, Excel models, and Word documents and send them to users via e-mail or burn them on CDs,” says Csaby.

Csaby began looking for alternatives to the zip-and-mail process and decided to deploy Availl’s software-based WAFS solution between his traders in London and Connecticut. He also plans to roll it out in the South Africa data center to allow for real-time file locking and file access capabilities on the firm’s WAN.

Availl’s WAFS product is a unified and accelerated file access system that provides high-speed file-sharing and server-to-server mirroring across long distances, with full coherency and at local hard-drive access speeds.

Users simply download an Availl software agent at multiple sites and select their file folders, and a file system is born. Files are accelerated and mirrored in real-time as they change and can be accessed from the local server at local disk speed at each of the sites. The technology also offers byte-level differencing, which keeps the mirroring process from stressing bandwidth limitations. File and data locking techniques also prevent files from being overwritten.

One of the by-products of the process is the ability to consolidate backup, security, and control of all remote locations to one site, which is an advantage that Csaby jumped on immediately.

“We originally implemented the Availl solution to improve information sharing, but backup and disaster recovery turned out to be a big bonus,” says Csaby.

Bernard Jacobs Mellet now has copies of all of its critical data stored locally at multiple sites, in addition to its regular tape-based backup routines. “We were looking for a way to move data off-site so that it would be live-just in case. Now if someone deletes a file our WAFS system will keep a copy of it in the other location,” Csaby explains.

WAFS enables consolidation

Consolidating control and cleaning up the backup and recovery of data at branch offices is also a priority for Factiva, a Dow Jones & Reuters Company, which provides an online clearinghouse for business news and information from sources such as The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Dow Jones and Reuters newswires, and the Associated Press.

Dan Weiss, director of systems architecture for Factiva, says deploying WAFS was all about centralization.

“We were looking at the overall resource consumption of supporting our major remote offices in New York, Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco. They all house their own separate file, print and domain servers and their own backup-and-recovery environments,” says Weiss.

Factiva opted for a hardware-based approach to WAFS via Packeteer’s iShared product, formerly offered by Tacit Networks, which was acquired by Packeteer earlier this year. (Major storage players such as Brocade resell the Packeteer/Tacit WAFS products.)

The iShared appliances allow users to manage branch offices from a single location and enable real-time data access for remote users anywhere across a WAN.

“We were spending too much time hiring and sending technical people to remote offices to clean up tape backup environments and perform routine maintenance on servers, and we were depending on non-technical people to switch out backup tapes,” Weiss explains.

Deploying the WAFS appliances enable Factiva to eliminate the need for multiple servers at its different locations. Weiss estimates that he has been able to collapse 24 different file, print, and DNS servers into a few Packeteer WAFS appliances while simultaneously getting a handle on his backups. And he no longer has to send his IT staff out on road trips to perform routine “junior-level” tasks.

The need for speed

Another company using WAFS to bring its data management under control is Solutia, a specialty chemicals company headquartered St. Louis, with regional headquarters in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Singapore.

Solutia has been using Steelhead WAFS appliances from Riverbed for more than two years and originally implemented the devices primarily to boost WAN performance, speed applications, and save on the cost of bandwidth.

According to Eric Nichols, Solutia’s chief information officer, the initial WAFS deployment was also aimed at consolidating its Microsoft Exchange e-mail environment.

“We wanted to centralize our Exchange environment by consolidating 19 remote Exchange servers into one data center to improve our WAN traffic,” says Nichols. “We boosted our WAN pipes between our major sites, moved to a newer version of Exchange, and when we plugged in the devices we saw an immediate drop in traffic.”

Nichols estimates that Solutia’s file transfer times dropped by up to 86% after his company rolled out 10 Riverbed Steelhead appliances. But he does not plan to stop exploring the technology. “Next, we want to try to consolidate all of our backups to one site,” says Nichols.

WAFS developers such as Availl, Packeteer, and Riverbed aren’t the only vendors focused on WAFS. Major storage vendors such Brocade, Cisco, and McData are also extolling the benefits of the technology and are using OEM partnerships and acquisitions to bolster their WAFS product lineups.

For example, Brocade has an OEM deal with Packeteer that serves as the basis for the Brocade Tapestry family of WAFS solutions. McData has entered into partnerships with Riverbed and storage virtualization vendor FalconStor Software to launch its Remote Office Consolidation (ROC) campaign, which includes the SpectraNet WAN Data Services Accelerator-a re-branded version of Riverbed’s Steelhead WAFS appliance. And Cisco has made two acquisitions in the WAFS space: Actona and FineGround.

The adoption of WAFS technology and all the software and services being wrapped around it could finally put an end to the days of entrusting interns to switch out the branch offices backup tapes after they make the morning coffee run.

This article was originally published on September 01, 2006