Monday, April 16, 2012

Virtualization simplifies disaster recovery for insurance broker Myron Steves while delivering efficiency and agility gains too

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: VMware.

When Hurricane Ike struck Texas in 2008, it became the second costliest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. It was also a wake-up call for Houston-based insurance wholesaler Myron Steves & Co., which was not struck directly but nonetheless realized its IT disaster recovery (DR) approach was woefully inadequate.

Supporting some 3,000 independent insurance agencies in the Gulf Coast region, with many insured properties in that active hurricane zone, Myron Steves must have all it resources up and available, if and when severe storms strike.

The next BriefingsDirect discussion then centers on how Myron Steves, a small- to medium-sized business (SMB), developed and implemented a modern disaster recovery and business continuity strategy based on a high-degree of server and clients virtualization.

Learn how Tim Moudry, Associate Director of IT, and William Chambers, IT Operations Manager, both at Myron Steves, made a bold choice to go essentially 100 percent server virtualized in 90 days. That then set the stage for a faster, cheaper, and more robust DR capability. It also helped them improve their desktop-virtualization delivery, another important aspect of maintaining constant availability no mater what.

The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

Here are some excerpts:
Moudry: When Hurricane Ike came, we were using another DR support company, and they gave us facilities to recover our data. They were also doing our backups.

We went to that site to recover systems, and we had a hard time recovering anything. We were testing it, and it was really cumbersome. We tried to get servers up and running. We stayed there to recover one whole day and never got even a data center recovered.

So William and I were chatting and thinking that there's got to be a better way. That’s when we started testing a lot of the other virtualization software. We came to VMware, and it was just so easy to deploy.

We made a proposal to our executive committee, and it was an easy sell. We did the whole project for the price of one year of our old DR system.

Gardner: William, what were your top concerns about change?

Chambers: Our top concerns were just avoiding what happened during Ike. In the building we're in in Houston, we were without power for about a week. So that was the number one cause for virtualization.

Number two was just the amount of hardware. Somebody actually called us and said, "Can you take these servers somewhere else and plug them in and make them run?" Our response was no.

That was the lead into virtualization. If we wanted everything to be mobile like that, we had to go with a different route.

Then, once you get into virtualization, you think, "Well, okay, this is going to make us mobile, and we'll be able to recover somewhere else quicker," but then you start seeing other features that you can use that would benefit what you are doing at smaller physical size. It's just the mobility of the data itself, if you’ve got storage in place that will do it for you. Recovery times were cut down to nothing.

Simpler to manage

There was ease of backups, everything that you have to do on a daily maintenance schedule. It just made everything simpler to manage, faster to manage, and so on.

Gardner: And so for you as an SMB with 200 employees, what requirements were involved? You obviously don't have unlimited resources and you don't have a huge IT staff.

Chambers: It’s probably what any other IT shop wants. They want stability, up-time, manageability, and flexibility. That’s what any IT shop would want, but we're a small shop. So we had to do that with fewer resources than some of the bigger Exxons and stuff like that.

Moudry: And it can't cost an arm and leg either. We're an insurance broker. We're not a carrier. We are between the carriers and agents. With our people being on the phone, up-time is essential, because they're on the phone quoting all the time. That means if we can’t answer our phones, the insurance agent down the street is going to go pick up the phone, and they're going to get the business somewhere else.

Now, we're trying to get more green in the industry, and we are trying to print less paper

Also, we do have claims. We don't process all claims, but we do some claims, mainly for our stuff that's on the coast. After a hurricane, that’s when people are going to want that.

We have to be up all the time. When a disaster strikes, they are going to say, "I need to get my policy," and then they are going to want to go to our website to download that policy, and we have to be up.

Gardner: Why did you go 100 percent virtualized in such a short time?

SAN storage

Chambers: We did that because we’ve got applications running on our servers, things like rating applications, emails, our core applications. A while back, we separated the data volumes from the physical server itself. So the data volume is stored on a storage area network (SAN) that we get through an iSCSI.

That made it so easy for us to do a physical-to-virtual (P2V) conversion on the physical server. Then in the evenings, during our maintenance period, we shut that physical server down and brought up the virtual connected to the SAN one, and we were good. That’s how we got through it so quickly.

Moudry: William moved us to VMware first, and then after we saw how VMware worked so well, we tried out VMware View and it was just a no-brainer, because of the issues that we had before with Citrix and because of the way Citrix works. One session affects all the others. That’s where VMware shines, because everybody is on their independent session.

Gardner: Where are your data centers?

Moving to colos

Moudry: Right now it’s Houston and San Antonio, but we are moving all of our equipment to colos, and we are going to be in Phoenix and Houston.

Gardner: So that’s even another layer of protection, wider geographic spread, and just reducing your risk in general. Let’s take a moment and look at what you’ve done and see in a bit more detail what it’s gotten for you. Return on investment (ROI), do you have any sense, having gone through this, what you are doing now that perhaps covered the cost of doing it in the first place?

Moudry: We spent about $350,000 a year in our past DR solution. We didn’t renew that, and the VMware DR paid for itself in the year.

We're working with automation. We're getting less of a footprint for our employees. You just don’t hire as many.

And we are not buying equipment like we used to. We had 70 servers and four racks. It compressed down to one rack. How many blades are we running, William?

Chambers: We're running 12 blades, and the per year maintenance cost on every server that we had compared to what we have now is 10 percent now of what it was.

Gardner: I notice that you're also a Microsoft shop. Did you look at their virtualization or DR? How come you didn’t go with Microsoft?

Then he downloaded the free version of VMware and tried the same thing on that. We got it up in two or three days.

Chambers: We looked at one of their products first. We've used the Virtual PC and Virtual Server products. Once you start looking at and evaluating theirs, it’s a little more difficult setup. It runs well, but at that time, I believe it was 2008, they didn’t have anything like the vCenter Site Recovery Manager (SRM) that I could find. It was a bit slower. All around, the product just wasn’t as good as the VMware product was.

Moudry: I remember when William was loading it. I think he spent probably about 30 days loading Microsoft and he got a couple of machines running on it. It was probably about two or three machines on each host. I thought, "Man, this is pretty cool." But then he downloaded the free version of VMware and tried the same thing on that. We got it up in two or three days?

Chambers: I think it was three days to get the host loaded and then re-center all the products, and then it was great.

Moudry: Then he said that it was a little bit more expensive, but then we weighed out all the cost of all the hardware that we were going to have to spend with Microsoft. He loaded the VMware and he put about 10 VMs on one host.

Increased performance

It was running great. It was awesome. I couldn’t believe that that we could get that much performance from one machine. You'd think that running 10 servers, you would get the most performance. I couldn’t believe that those 10 servers were running just as fast on one server that they did on 10.

Chambers: That was another key benefit. The footprint of ESXi was somewhat smaller than a Microsoft.

Moudry: It used the memory so much more efficiently.

Gardner: You mentioned vSphere, vCenter Site Recovery Manager, and View. Is that it? Are you up to the latest versions of those? What do you actually have in place and running?

Chambers: We have both in production right now, vCenter 4.1, and vCenter 5.0. We’re migrating from 4.1 to 5.0. Instead of doing the traditional in-place upgrade, we’ve got it set up to take a couple of hosts out of the production environment, build them new from scratch, and then just migrate VMs to it in the server environment.

It went by so fast that it just happened that way. We were ahead of schedule on our time-frames and ahead on all of our budget numbers.

It's the same thing with the View environment. We’ve got enough hosts so we can take a couple out, build the new environment, and then just start migrating users to it.

It all happened much quicker than we thought. Once we did a few of the conversions, of the physical servers that we had, and it went by so fast that it just happened that way. We were ahead of schedule on our time-frames and ahead on all of our budget numbers. Once we got everything in our physical production environment virtualized, then we could start building new virtual servers to replace the ones that we had converted, just for better performance.

Without disruption

We were able to do it without disruption, and that was one of the better things that happened. We could convert a physical server during the day, while people were still using it, or create that VM for it. Then, at night, we took the physical down and brought the virtual up, and they never knew it.

Gardner: How about some other metrics of success?

Copying the template

Moudry: Making new servers is nothing. William has a template. He just copies it and renames it.

Chambers: The deployment of new ones is 20 minutes. Then, we’ve got our development people who come down and say, "I need a server just like the production server to do some testing on before we move that into production." That takes 10 minutes. All I have to do is clone that production server and set it up for them to use for development. It’s so fast and easy that they can get their work done much quicker.

Moudry: Rather than loading the Windows disk and having to load a server and get it all patched up.

Chambers: It gives you a like environment. In the past, where they tested on a test server you built, that’s not exactly the same as the production server. They could have bugs that they didn’t even know about yet, and that just cuts down on the development time just a lot.

Gardner: Any advice for folks who are looking at the same type of direction, higher virtualization, gaining the benefits of DR’s result and then perhaps having more of that agility and flexibility? What might you have learned in hindsight that you could share with some other folks?

We’ve got a lot of people working at home now, just because of the View environment and things like that.

Chambers: If you are going to use virtualization, then get in and start using it on a small basis. Just to do a proof of concept, check performance, do all the due diligence that you need, and get into it. It will really pay off in the end.

Moudry: Have a change control system that monitors what you change. When we first went over there, William was testing out the VMs, and I couldn’t believe, as I was saying earlier, how fast it is. We have people who are on the phones. They're quoting insurance. They have to have the speed. If it hesitates, and that customer on the phone takes longer to give our people the information and our people has hard time quoting it, we’re going to lose the business.

When William put some of these packages over to the VM software, and it was not only running as fast, but it was running faster on the VM than it was on a hard box. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how fast it was.

Chambers: And there was another thing that we saw. We’ve got a lot of people working at home now, just because of the View environment and things like that. I think we’ve kind of neglected our inside people, because they'd rather work in a View environment, because it's so much faster than sitting on a local desktop.

Backbone speed

Moudry: When somebody works at home, they're at lightning speeds. Upstairs is a ghost town now, because everybody wants to work from home. That’s part of our DR also. The model is, "We have a disaster here. You go work from home." That means we don’t have to put people into offices anywhere, and with the Voice over IP, it's like their call-center. They just call from home.

Chambers: They can work from different devices now, too. I know we’ve got laptops out there, iPads, different type of mobile devices, and it's all secure.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: VMware.

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Microsoft teams up with Ariba on B2B ecommerce front

Ariba is now teaming with Microsoft in business streamlining to empower buyers and sellers to better connect and collaborate across Microsoft applications and Ariba's commerce cloud services.

Announced last week at the AribaLIVE conference in Las Vegas, the joint effort paves the way for many more businesses and resellers globally to plug into what Ariba calls the Networked Economy by giving Microsoft Dynamics AX users automated access to the Ariba Network.

Microsoft Dynamics offers productivity tools and built-in contextual business intelligence that help decision-makers move faster. There are 300,000 businesses that use Microsoft Dynamics applications and 10,000 Microsoft Dynamics reselling partners worldwide.

The Ariba Network leverages cloud-based invoicing, supplier discovery and spend management services and an online trading community to drive collaboration and efficiency in business-to-business ecommerce. Companies use the network to transact more than $300 billion in commerce annually, and it's growing rapidly. [Disclosure: Ariba is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

HP, for example, now uses Ariba to sell $1.3 billion in orders over the Ariba Network annually, changing game of automation for IT orders and fulfillment, said Ariba President Kevin Costello on the Ariba main stage last week. Ariba, said Costello, provides a "neutral gateway" to extended enterprise business processes around supply chain and spend. [Disclosure: HP is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

The new strategic alliance wit Microsoft is a response to trends like cloud computing and the convergence of enterprise applications, social media and communities. Microsoft and Ariba are seeing more organizations looking beyond the four walls of the enterprise, extending processes and systems to connect and collaborate more with customers, suppliers, and other trading partners.

“Business has officially entered a new era,” said Tim Minahan, Chief Marketing Officer at Ariba. “It’s social, it’s mobile, it’s collaborative and it’s creating a major shift in how companies interact.”

In other AribaLIVE news, Ariba announced stronger ties to ThomasNet (nee Thomas Register), bringing scads more product and detailed supplier data into Ariba Network. Ariba also now using Dell Boomi to accelerate integration with company systems for collaborative commerce, the company announced. And Ariba is also partnering with Accenture on commerce strategies and business process outsourcing (BPO) alliances.

Joins other partners

For it's part, Redmond is bringing Microsoft Dynamics AX to the Ariba commerce cloud integration table, joining other major customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) online and hybrid providers, such as, SAP and Oracle. Ariba is confident that the broad-based business applications integration and automation will set the stage for its network to gain critical mass and become a de facto standard for supply chain transaction and business collaboration discovery services.

“By combining the powerful capabilities of Microsoft Dynamics AX with the world’s largest business trading network, we can deliver a solution that enables companies of all sizes to connect with their trading partners electronically, helping businesses improve collaboration, grow their business with existing customers and discover new opportunities,” said Doug Kennedy, vice president of Partners and Existing Customer Service Programs, Microsoft Dynamics.

For Ariba’s part, the company is developing an adapter that will allow Microsoft Dynamics AX customers to connect to the Ariba Network. The Ariba Network offers cloud-based apps that allow organizations that share a business process to also share the technology that drives it. The network also offers a community of partners, as well as best practices in community-derived intelligence in areas like unique analytics, preferred financing and ratings.

With Microsoft joining the Ariba Network partnership gaggle, Ariba now has all major CRM and ERP providers tied into its collaborative commerce cloud. I would also definitely expect more Microsoft applications synergies with Ariba.

Updated P2P

At LIVE, Ariba also updated its Ariba Procure-to-Pay offerings, allowing users to create and deploy easy-to-search and access catalogs through which employees can find the goods and services they need and purchase them in compliance with preferred vendor agreements. The user experience looks and feels very much like But it’s clearly more than just a slick interface.

The new catalog search and comparison capabilities in Ariba Procure-to-Pay certainly make it easier for buyers to find precisely the products they’re looking for, and also secure the best deals available. But the larger value comes with the budget monitoring and visual workflow features which allow all permissioned stakeholders to see where requests stand, and to be able to adjust processes on the fly to suit dynamic business needs. What's more, the expanded set of tools helps drive compliance with specific corporate purchasing policies.

These are building blocks to the larger networked effect or faster, automated and scaleable business transactions across all types of suppliers, users and types of business. And the net effect of that is to change business substantially.

"The Networked Economy effect is far more transformative than we can imagine," said Vivek Kundra, former US CIO, and currently executive vice president at, an AribaLIVE keynote speaker. Hard to argue with that, based on Ariba's growth and user adoption.

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The business aspects of cloud: Let's get started

This guest post comes courtesy of Christian Verstraete, Chief Technologist, Cloud Strategy for HP.

By Christian Verstraete

I’ve spent the last several weeks addressing some of the business aspects of cloud and why/how companies move to the cloud. It’s time now to wrap this series up. The cloud discussions have been changing rapidly over the last months, focusing away from infrastructure to applications, services and industry requirements.

Implementations in larger companies typically started with development & test activities within the IT department, while business teams used “shadow-IT” approaches to source services from external parties, potentially putting the enterprise at risk. [Disclosure: HP is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

The main reason is the perceived lack of responsiveness and agility of IT. As I pointed out, it is increasingly becoming clear that one size does not fit all, in cloud computing and that the CIO should become a “strategic service broker”, sourcing services from a series of cloud environments going from private to public clouds and from IaaS to SaaS services.

To achieve a successful transition to cloud computing, the CIO needs to address three areas:

Review the IT organization

Moving away from an architecture focused on the development, maintenance and management of a series of applications running in a proprietary environment to the sourcing of services from multiple sources, require rethinking how the organization is structured and managing the changes that this imply. Gone are the deep technical siloes, each managed in isolation.

They should be replaced by a more holistic approach where a team is focused on the implementation and operation of a cloud platform, if the enterprise decides to maintain its own private cloud, and teams focused on the sourcing, development, maintenance and management of the services needed by the business. What makes this transformation difficult is the fact the move to cloud takes time, and for the foreseeable future, legacy and cloud environments will have to co-exist.

What makes this transformation difficult is the fact the move to cloud takes time, and for the foreseeable future, legacy and cloud environments will have to co-exist.

This pushes to a gradual evolution of the IT organization, building a cloud focused team in parallel with the reduction of the traditional one. One advantage is that in IT many resources will retire over the next 10 years as the baby boomers are slowly replaced by millennials. One approach is to build the new organization around these, while keeping the baby boomers focused on the traditional environment.

But you may want to transfer some of the experience gained over the years, and even if cloud is a different approach to IT, a lot of the fundamentals are still applicable. This will force you to review your existing IT organization thoroughly, assess the capabilities and rebuild a new organization capable of addressing both the traditional and cloud world.

The good news is that others have done this before you. A couple weeks ago I ran into a podcast by Teri Takai, CIO US Department of Defense and Suren Gupta EVP of IT at Allstate Insurance Company. They discuss how to transform traditional IT to cloud IT and provide some interesting hints. This is just one of the many articles pointing out something has to happen. Recognizing the needs is easy, but transforming in flight is a little more complex.

Set-up service governance with the business

As stated in part 1, cloud is a vehicle for IT to respond faster to the needs of the business. To use cloud to its full extent, it’s key to understand those needs, isn’t it? And that is where governance comes in. Sitting down with the business and prioritize their requirements is critical for the CIO to be successful. I cannot stress enough the prioritization as in many situations, the needs of the business vastly surpasses the financial capabilities of IT to implement.

I’ve often used ROI as a way to help the business to prioritize their requirements. What is the return of investment of a specific service required. I cannot tell you how often I have heard about needs that were absolutely mandatory, but when discussing them without emotions and reviewing the added value to the bottom line or the increase in productivity, it quickly became clear there was none.

It also allows IT to demonstrate added value to the business and builds a true partnership spirit between both parties.

It helps the business teams looking at things objectively and maximize their productivity. It also allows IT to demonstrate added value to the business and builds a true partnership spirit between both parties.

In organizations, IT is often seen as an entity that does not really understand what is needed, that makes things complicated, that always needs a long time to deliver etc. Building such governance provides the business teams with a better understanding of what IT is up to and helps them decide what is really important for them.

Develop an application roadmap

The third element the CIO needs to focus on is the development of an application roadmap. What do I mean by that? It’s the definition of which applications will be retained in the transformation and what platform (legacy, private, virtual private or public cloud) is it intended to migrate too.

To perform this, a number of steps are required. Here are the main ones:

  1. Perform an inventory of the available applications. This step alone will provide you with many surprises. Don’t limit you to applications, but look at application instances, and if packaged applications are included, identify the different versions used.
  2. Establish the applications or application instances you will sunset. In other words, what are the applications you do not plan to use any longer. Here obviously the governance is mandatory as this is a discussion between business and IT. Don’t hesitate to utilize the ROI approach I described earlier to focus attention, as the business by default sees the need to keep everything.
  3. For each of the sunset applications, define a replacement and sunset plan. In other words, how will this functionality be delivered in the future (by another application that is already available, by a new application, is it no longer needed etc.) As a result of this exercise, new applications may have to be added to the inventory as they will become part of the application environment in the future.

    This is a new technology with which you do not have a lot of experience yet, so you will run into roadblocks that will take time to resolve.

  4. For each of the applications in the inventory, identify the data sources required, identify potential latency and responsiveness issues and look at whether this application is a core or context application as described in part 4.
  5. Identify the sensitivity of the data sources. Are these core data items? Are they subject to privacy or other laws enforcing geographical boundaries etc.
  6. With all this information, run a workshop with the business to review where each application will run. What is the target platform? You may want to use the approach taken by ACME corporation in part 7. Look at the characteristics of the application gathered in step 4, but also at the associated data sources and their sensitivity in the identification of the target platform
  7. And then last, set-up a plan. By when should each of the applications been migrated to their target platform. Don’t be too optimistic in the first steps. This is a new technology with which you do not have a lot of experience yet, so you will run into roadblocks that will take time to resolve.
This close collaboration with the business should transform relations in the long run, improve IT’s responsiveness and provide an environment for growth.


loud is a game changer. It is probably the first “revolution” in IT since the appearance of the mainframes and forces IT to rethink and transform itself. SMBs and start-ups have understood this quickly as it allowed them to do a quantum leap forward in the use of IT in general and infrastructure in particular. Larger enterprises, having well-structured IT departments, have a little more difficulty in understanding the value and making the step.

Having talked to many CIO’s and business people, I do not believe it’s about whether to go to cloud, but when. And the first movers get the greatest benefits.

I do not believe it’s about whether to go to cloud, but when.

Let me finish this series with a little story. It may not seem relevant at the start, but read till the end, you’ll understand.

Two people are walking in the savanna and suddenly one of them spots a tiger. Unfortunately, the tiger has seen them too. He warns his colleague who kneels down to put his running shoes on. The first guy burst laughing saying: “Those shoes won’t help you running faster than the tiger, you know.” The second responds: “I don’t need to run faster than the tiger, I just need to run faster than you.”

Improving agility and responsiveness faster than their competitors allow companies to gain market share, even in depressed markets. That’s all I wish you. I hope this series helped you think through this and understand how you can use cloud as a way to beat your competition, not the tiger.

This guest post comes courtesy of Christian Verstraete, Chief Technologist, Cloud Strategy for HP.

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