Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.
Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect.
Today, we present a sponsored podcast discussion on how biotechnology services provider Acorda Therapeutics has implemented a strategic disaster recovery (DR) capability to protect its highly virtualized IT operations and data.
We will see how Acorda Therapeutics’ use of advanced backup and DR best practices and products has helped it to manage rapid growth, cut energy costs, and gain the means to recover and manage applications and data faster. We will also see how these advanced DR benefits have led to other data center flexibly and even migration benefits. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Here to share more detail on how modernizing DR has helped improve many aspects of Acorda Therapeutics’ responsiveness is Josh Bauer, Senior Manager of Network Operations at Acorda Therapeutics in Hawthorne, New York. Welcome to BriefingsDirect, Josh.
Josh Bauer: Thank you.
Gardner: From a high level, looking at the landscape of how things are changing so rapidly, what do you perceive as being different today about DR than just a few years ago? Is this really a fast moving area?
Bauer: One of the most prominent changes is recovery time, especially with this technology such as virtualization using VMware. You no longer need to restore from physical tape and see recovery times of upwards of 24 hours, something that we hadn’t seen until recently. We implemented Site Recovery Manager (SRM) from VMware and we can now do that same recovery in about four hours.
Gardner: So one of the chief benefits is just moving from tape into a more virtualized environment, where you can get fast turnaround. How about completeness? Is there an element of completeness that has improved as well?
Bauer: Absolutely. We're constantly replicating using RecoverPoint and we can get data up to the minute, versus tape, where you are at the whim of whether the backup completed on time -- did everything go to tape, and when was it done? It could have been two days ago, versus now, when it's data that’s 100 percent synced up to a minute ago.
Gardner: I am also wondering, because you are in the healthcare and biotechnology field, are there aspects of this that appeal to you from a compliance or regulatory perspective as well?
Bauer: Definitely. Four times per year we have to prove that we can recover all of our software and data by doing a DR test. Until we had SRM, we had to do it all from tape, from a cold facility, and it would take us a day, sometimes a day-and-a-half. That’s just not the best way to do things. But now, with SRM, we can always do these tests on the fly, even from our office, from home, or from wherever.
Gardner: Tell me a little bit more about Acorda Therapeutics. You were founded in 1995. Tell us what you do, so our audience can understand the type of company you are and type of products and services you provide.
Bauer: We create treatments for people with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, or other neurological disorders. We have two marketed drugs in the market right now, the most recent of which, Ampyra, helps people with multiple sclerosis walk better, and it has been a huge success. And that's the main reason we've been growing so much lately.
Gardner: Tell me about this issue of growth. When you started to look at your facilities, your data center, and your infrastructure, you obviously made the move to virtualization in a big way. How did it make sense in your mind to go to a DR improvement and how did that come to bear on this issue of being able to ramp up and deal with a fast growing organization?
Bauer: That was just the next logical step. Prior to virtualization, we were spending a lot of time managing our infrastructure, with all those physical servers. Once we virtualized everything, we spent way less time managing the infrastructure and could spend more time helping the business.
In fact, the IT department itself has become less like a computer repair shop and more like a strategy center. I'm constantly being brought into projects to help the business make the right decisions when it comes to any type of technology.
The next logical step would be to have my team spend less time doing these four-times-a-year DR drills the way I described before. With SRM it’s a few clicks. We're saving so much time and we are able to do other things.
Gardner: Just so we have a sense of the growth, you went from 80 employees a few years ago to how many now?
Bauer: Now, it's about 350.
Gardner: That’s pretty impressive. Obviously, too, in this type of field you're dealing with large amounts of data, data that is structured and unstructured. Give us a sense of the storage and/or data requirements that you're facing?
Bauer: When we had about 80 employees, we probably barely had a terabyte, and now we easily have over 14 terabytes.
Gardner: At a high level, tell me about how you approach this, and if you use partners, how you sought some help in terms of figuring out your journey. What was it that you went to in terms of beginning the journey and how it unfolded and got you to the point today, where you can deal with something like 14 terabytes and moment-by-moment backup capability?
Bauer: Specific to DR or the data recovery?
Gardner: The whole journey. How you approached this problem, got some help, and then got to the level you are now.
Bauer: It all really started at VMworld. That’s been a fantastic way for me to learn what's out there, what's coming up, and just staying in the know. That’s actually where I met International Computerware, Inc. (ICI), who is one of our strategic partners for storage and virtualization.
I had approached them with the growth issue. We had already started doing virtualization on our own. I had used it at a previous company, but I wasn’t familiar with SRM, and it looked like it might be a nice fit for improving our DR. So ICI came in and they sort of held our hands and helped us with that project.
Specific to storage, they have also helped us make sure that we do better management of growth, anticipate our growth, and show that we have more than what we're going to need, before the growth happens, and they've done some analysis on like what we have. We brought them in before things got too bad.
Gardner: So how about beyond the technology and the products? People and process also play a big role in this. Did this require a big shift in culture or skills when you went from cold tape to this more modern and software-based approach?
Bauer: Not much of a cultural shift, luckily, because of projects like virtualization and how successful we've been. The company trusts us to take on new technologies and they kind of leave it to us.
But within IT, the shift was a good one. It was a reduced workload on them, and it's a much better process. As a result, it got more people in my IT department involved in virtualization as well.
Gardner: I'm intrigued about this relationship between server virtualization and a track record of strong skills and process to moving into DR. Tell me a little bit about your IT environment and your level of virtualization and why that led to a sort of no-brainer, when it came to moving to SRM ,and a higher degree of efficiency, when it comes to DR?
Bauer: Since using VMware, we've noticed uptime upwards of three nines monthly. Before that, when we were mostly a physical environment, it was nowhere near that much. We had physical servers going down all the time.
VMware immediately gained our trust, seeing that they came out with this product for DR. It was a name that we trusted. Then, we played with it for a while, and it worked out fantastically.
It's all about trusting VMware and then, again, ICI, working with them. They just know their stuff. We have a lot of different partners we work with, but we prefer to use ICI, because they really focus on doing things properly. It's more about working with someone that really knows what they are doing. They understand that we have some skills, as well. They're not trying to sell us something we don’t need.
Gardner: I believe that ICI was named VMware Business Continuity Partner of the Year in 2011. So clearly there is a strong relationship between them and VMware. But getting back to the products, do you recall what degree of virtualization you have among your servers?
95 percent virtualized
Bauer: We are 95 percent virtualized here. The only thing that’s not virtual is our fax server, which requires a physical fax board and that’s about it. Everything else is virtual.
Gardner: So this is across all tiered apps, tier one, three, four?
Bauer: That’s correct, our SQL apps, our Exchange, everything you can think of is virtualized.
Gardner: I understand you're using vSphere 5. You're on vCenter SRM 5. That only came out towards the end of last year. So you just jumped right on that.
Bauer: Oh, I didn’t waste any time. We were very excited about it, especially this new option of using a failback, which wasn’t really part of SRM Version 4.
Gardner: Tell us a little bit more about why that’s important to you.
Bauer: If you ever have the very unlikely event of a a disaster, when you do a recovery, you're now operating off of the disaster equipment or recovery equipment. While that’s happening, people are still saving files and generating new data. If you were to just simply turn on the original equipment again, all that data would be lost. So you need to fail back to re-sync everything.
With SRM Version 4, you had to configure two one-way recovery systems. So it would take a lot more time. But now with failback, it's a lot more smooth, kind of built-in.
Gardner: How about doing test? If you wanted to try out and see how things were working, perhaps preparing for some of those compliance and regulatory requirements, does that happen a bit easier as well now with the newer version?
Bauer: We've seen a higher success rate on the new version versus the old one. They've certainly fixed some of the bugs, and the interface is much better. The whole testing process seems to be a lot more smooth.
Gardner: Let's move on to how you know you're doing this correctly. Do you have any metrics? Do you track this? Is there anecdotal evidence from your business users, even those who are involved with the compliance issues? Of course, the number one metric is that you don’t suffer downtime and you don’t lose data, but are there other ways that you look at this and say, "Wow, we're saving money, reducing workload, and reducing labor?" Anything along those lines?
Bauer: When we do these four-times-a-year test, we create this lab bubble and we also have a few Windows XP and Windows 7 virtual workstations on there. We invite a few people from the business to log in and test their applications.
They would be protected
So right there, we're getting people outside of IT involved to let them see how cool this is. It also gives them the comfort in knowing that, if there ever were a disaster, they would be protected. They can see it for themselves by actually dialing into the computer and testing things themselves. So there's a huge benefit to that. It deepens the trust between IT and the business.
Gardner: Do you actually have separate data centers that you are backing up to? What's the topology or architecture that you're using?
Bauer: We have two separate data centers, recovery and production.
Gardner: And do you have them far apart in different geographies or do you have them hosted.
Bauer: At the moment they're only a few towns apart, but we are shopping around for a data center much further away. We hope to do that in the next six months or so.
Gardner: And this is all in Hawthorne, New York. Is that correct?
Gardner: Looking to the future, one other area I wanted to hit on, which is important to a lot of folks, especially in some overseas markets, is this issue about energy. Did you have any impact on energy and/or storage costs associated with the total life cycle of the data?
Bauer: We reduced the footprint by easily 75 percent by not needing so many physical servers. That’s a pretty huge shout-out to VMware there. Also, we're not using that much power. We don’t need as big a data center. Not as much cooling is needed. There's a whole assortment of things, when you take out all the physical servers.
Gardner: Now, looking to the future, other areas that people have described as a segue from going to high virtualization, exploiting the latest technologies in DR, is to start thinking about desktop virtualization infrastructure (VDI) and desktop-as-a-service. They're even looking at cloud and hybrid-cloud models for hosting apps, then backing them up and recovering them in different data centers, which you've alluded to. Do you have any thoughts about where this could possibly lead?
Bauer: In fact, if you were going to ask me what my next initiative was going to be, and you didn’t mention desktops, that’s the first thing that would have come to mind. We're starting to explore replacing our laptops with virtual desktops. I'm hoping this is something that we could implement next year.
Right way to go
This seems like the right way to go, because our helpdesk team spends too much time swapping out laptops or replacing laptops that are dropped on the ground. You're looking at a small thin client, which is the fraction of the cost of a laptop. Plus, the data is no longer kept in a laptop. There are no security or compliance issues. You can l just give them a thin client, and they are back in business.
Gardner: So you rest easily of course with good DR, but you rest easy, as well, when your intellectual property is all well protected across the entire spectrum of its deployment and use in local storage.
Bauer: Exactly. It makes everybody in this company, especially at the top-level, nervous to know that some sensitive data still does make it out to the laptops. We tell people to save everything to their network drives, but without using thin clients and virtual desktops, there's no other way to force that.
Gardner: How about advice for those folks that might be moving towards a more modern DR journey, as you described it? What would you advise to them as they begin, and what lessons might you have learned that you could share?
Bauer: First off, do it. You're going to be glad that you did. The good thing about this is that you can do it in parallel with your current DR plans. You don’t have to change your existing recovery plans. You can take as much time as you want to set it up right. And the key is to set up a demonstration for the key business owners and players that are going to make the decision on the change.
Set it up right with a handful of important apps, important VMs, and then just show it to people. Once they see how great it works, you're definitely going to want to change.
Gardner: And that disruption, or the lack of disruption I suppose I should say, when you're implementing this seems to be important too. Any thoughts about what you might be able to inform people about, when it comes to level or lack of level of disruption when you're putting this together?
Bauer: As I said, you can do this in parallel. As you're setting up this new environment, it doesn’t affect your existing environment whatsoever.
Gardner: A matter of flipping the switch.
Gardner: Anything else you would like to offer in terms of your thoughts on strategic and tactical benefits around DR and your journey?
Bauer: It's always helpful to have some outside help. No matter how skilled you are, it's always good to have a second pair of eyes look at the work that you did, if for nothing more than to confirm that you've done everything you could and your plans are solid. It's helpful to have a partner like ICI.
Gardner: Great. We've been talking about how biotechnology services provider Acorda Therapeutics has implemented a strategic DR capability to augment its highly virtualized IT operations. And we have seen quite a few tactical and strategic benefits for that for their IT group, as well as for the larger organization and its requirements as a healthcare provider, for compliance, regulation, and protection of their assets.
Thanks so much to our guest. We've been here with Josh Bauer. He is the Senior Manager of Network Operations for Acorda Therapeutics. Thanks so much, Josh.
Bauer: Thank you.
Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. Thanks again for joining, and come back next time.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.
Transcript of a sponsored podcast discussion on how a fine-tuned disaster recovery program can produce benefits across the IT landscape. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2012. All rights reserved.
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