SAN safeguards e-business operations

E-services company requires 100% server-to-storage availability and reliability.

By Ron Levine

E-business-to-business has become the hottest growth area on the Internet. However, successful e-business ventures require rock-solid computer systems capable of non-stop server-to-storage access 24 hours a day. To achieve this, many e-business sites turn to an experienced storage solutions provider to handle the technical challenges associated with doing business on the Internet.

One of the fastest-growing segments of e-business services is the digital printing industry. Print service vendors face many formidable tasks, with print-on-demand (POD) order fulfillment being one of the greatest challenges. POD service is popular with large corporate clients as a way of eliminating printed collateral inventory waste. Also, the ability to personalize and customize documents for such things as trade shows, channel partners, and new promotions makes on-demand printing a valuable marketing tool.

Yet, POD services are the most time-consuming and costly services offered by print vendors, as employees spend significant amounts of time capturing repetitive order specifications and explaining different print and pricing options.

The Internet can be a wonderful tool for the digital printshop. With it, several of the POD processes can be automated, including order entry, customization, proofing, purchasing, fulfillment, and invoicing. Plus, the Internet allows print service providers to create virtual collateral catalogs made-to-order for each individual customer. However, Web-based commerce comes with a price: It requires complex systems, including high-availability Web and file servers, reliable applications packages, and no-fault data handling and storage solutions. Printshops must safeguard their customers' files, ensure security, and maintain the overall hardware and software that make it all work.

Most print vendors don't have the necessary technical resources in-house to configure and administer such a system. A three-year-old e-business services company, MediaFlex, is taking on this task for the digital printing industry.

MediaFlex, in Campbell, CA, specializes in developing e-commerce print services solutions. The company manages and simplifies all aspects of e-business for print service providers. MediaFlex supplies the infrastructure between the printshop and its customers, and helps automate all of the non-printing business tasks associated with each order, such as order creation and processing, final invoicing, and fulfillment.

The MediaFlex Online Print Center (OPC) is a behind-the-scenes hardware and software solution that is transparent to the printshop's customers. A customer logs into their print vendor's Internet site via a standard Web browser, is connected to their unique branded Web page (which holds the customer's collateral templates), selects the product to be printed, enters any changes on the screen, and places the order.

The OPC handles price quotes, order processing, and confirmation-all online. The system even provides a proof copy on the screen in real-time for customer approval. This is all possible because each customer's vital information is stored on servers owned by the print vendor, but administered and maintained at a co-location facility by MediaFlex, relieving the print provider of all technical responsibility.

With MediaFlex's OPC, the print service vendor receives a hassle-free solution to process all customer transactions, 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world. The transmission of the customer order, print-ready files, and payment processing are all automated, allowing the printshop to concentrate on print production.

Benefits of this approach include cost savings and improved customer service through the Internet. However, what appears simple up front is anything but simple behind the scenes.

The problems

To be successful, MediaFlex must guarantee its customers 100% file availability on a 24x7 basis, ample storage capacity, and complete protection and security of their data. Downtime or lost data translates to lost customers.

MediaFlex is itself an e-business storefront and, as such, is completely dependent on its system availability to conduct all business. "If the system goes down, within a very short period of time our losses can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars," notes Ryan Kubica, manager of IT at MediaFlex. "We require a systems and data storage methodology with a high degree of availability and safety built-in, and we must have dependable backup for on-line server data-all automatic and all transparent to our users. And, as we grow, the environment must be easy to scale without affecting on-line processing."

The solution

MediaFlex turned to StorNet-a West Chester, PA, consulting firm that specializes in data management, high-availability storage, and backup strategies-to design a solution tailored specifically for its unique e-business needs.

"The first things that caught our attention were that MediaFlex didn't have a fast, automatic storage access failover plan in place and their on-line data was only backed up at the end of the day. Corrupted or lost files, or a data access breakdown, could have put them out of business," recalls Kelly Bell, StorNet's account executive. "For safety, an e-business should have multiple server-to-storage access channels and continually create backup files throughout the day."

After assessing MediaFlex's operating environment, StorNet recommended a switched-fabric, Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN) solution. StorNet suggested a two-phase approach. In phase one, MediaFlex installed a SAN and integrated four existing enterprise servers with a new RAID array over a Fibre Channel switching environment.

The primary goal was to assure network availability and provide centralized backup with quick disaster-recovery capabilities. The SAN can be easily expanded with additional capacity as storage needs grow, without interrupting on-line operations.

In phase two, either an optical jukebox or tape library will be added to the SAN as a disaster recovery file repository. This near-online secondary storage will also provide storage for rarely used files, migrating them off of the RAID array, and conserving on-line storage space. The backup processes will be continual and automated, thus providing an extra level of file protection.

MediaFlex has a crucial need to ensure 100% availability of client's files around the clock. If something happens, a failover system must be able to take over within minutes. To meet this objective, StorNet recommended the fabric-based SAN configuration. By installing redundant hardware throughout the file delivery subsystem over a dual-switched, multiple server-to-RAID storage channel, continual operation is assured. This configuration provides automatic failover protection and fault isolation-always maintaining access to/from the storage unit.

MediaFlex embraced StorNet's proposed solution. "It was better than other vendor's proposals in that it was more complete, provided faster storage access and backup, was fully scalable, and met all of our high-availability objectives," says Kubica. "Perhaps best of all, it saved us more than $100,000 in the phase-one implementation alone compared to other vendors' recommended solutions."

The initial install period was scheduled for three days once the required components arrived (e.g., RAID array, host bus adapter cards, switches, and software), but it was completed in two days. "The ease with which the Brocade switches were installed really speeded up the SAN integration process," says StorNet's Bell. "The switches just plug in and work. A test run was performed, and the SAN was up and running without incident."

StorNet integrated the SAN with MediaFlex's Sun-based Fast Ethernet LAN, and provided the hardware, software, and engineering required.

The benefits

The SAN provides MediaFlex with the type of system it needs to operate a full-service e-business with 24-hour accessibility and full file protection and security. According to Kubica, new applications require file sizes between 25MB and 50MB each.

"These applications allow us to take dynamic data off of the Web from the user, and combine it with source files into viewable PDFs on the user's screen," says Kubica. The previous LAN server storage environment was too slow to handle this large of a storage task without bottlenecking. The RAID-based SAN can read a 25MB file in one second."

With the first phase of the SAN in place, there is no single point of failure between the servers and storage; and the servers are able to share files. Phase two (scheduled for implementation at the end of this month, pending product release from Tivoli) will add an additional level of data protection, storage zoning, and automatic file migration.

"We needed a solution that would guarantee 24x7 server-to-storage data access and reliability, and allow us to expand as necessary. We believe that we now have that system in place," says Kubica. "And we no longer have to worry about a server or data access outage affecting our e-business site or the safety of our, or our customers', files."

Ron Levine is a freelance writer in Carpinteria, CA. He can be reached at ron@coastwriting.com.

Inside the SAN

MediaFlex's enterprise servers include four Sun E450s with 124MB of RAM each, running Solaris version 7. Each server is equipped with two Fibre Channel host bus adapter cards. A 140GB Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) 5846 Fibre Channel RAID array is used for all primary storage applications.

Two servers deal with Web traffic, and two function as the network's file/application servers. Each server is active, but if a failure occurs, any server can take over in about 15 seconds. Outbound server connections to MediaFlex's print vendors are 100Mb Fast Ethernet.

The HDS 5846 RAID array is connected to the Sun servers through two Brocade Fibre Channel SilkWorm switches. The array contains two controllers, ten drives, and redundant Fibre Channel bus paths. If one of the controllers goes down, the RAID array automatically switches to the remaining (failover) controller.

Each controller plugs into a Brocade switch. The switches connect to each other and to the server's host bus adapter fabric cards. "With this setup, if any one device goes dead, I can still communicate with all servers and all storage on the network," says Ryan Kubica, manager of IT at MediaFlex.

Veritas Volume Manager software handles all storage management and backup tasks. This software "tunes" the hardware, enabling a storage access speed ten times faster than other solutions that MediaFlex evaluated. Other software includes various Java applications and an Oracle database.

The SAN implemen tation meets MediaFlex's need for high availability, speed, and shared network storage (the company has multiple application and Web servers that must access the same files).

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The SAN solution was chosen primarily for performance, expandability, and price.

This article was originally published on September 01, 2000