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The Quest for Continuous Operations: Data Compression Speeds Disaster Recovery

Written by  William J. Douglas
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State of the Industry - the Impact of Disaster on Businesses

As the information revolution evolves, corporate executives are becoming more concerned with ensuring their operations are available when their customers want them, guaranteed. Many believe that technology performance will be the key success factor for businesses in the future. This implies that organizations may need to consider production environments that have no single points of failure, that react instantaneously to interruptions in service.
In short, the successful businesses must target a technology environment which can be relied on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. But what if that interruption is a catastrophic disaster? How can a company guarantee continuous operations in the event of a disaster and what is the impact on the recovery environment if a disaster should occur?

In the last decade, there have been numerous local and regional disasters that have affected business in the United States. The impact on the business community has been significant. Statistically, it has been reported that 43 percent of the companies experiencing a disaster never re-open, and an additional 29 percent close within two years. Seventy-five percent of businesses who lose computer support are no longer able to conduct business functions after only two weeks.

Before a business can determine the most appropriate recovery environment, executives must conduct a Business Impact Analysis (BIA) to determine the real hard dollar loss it would expect to incur should they be unable to conduct business over a period of time. This will help shape their recovery requirements and help them weigh the cost of recovery against the risk of a disaster and the impact on the survival of the business.

The Continuous Operations and  Recovery Solution for NationsBank

One potential continuous operations and recovery solution is electronic vaulting, like that provided by IBM's Business Recovery Service (BRS) with Computer Network Technology's (CNT) Channelink network processor. NationsBank has used this design to successfully vault critical data at IBM/BRS recovery sites. Futhermore, CNT extending a new compression capability to this recovery design has saved us both circuits and dollars.

NationsBank, the fourth largest bank in the United States, has grown dramatically through internal growth and acquisitions over the past two decades. Today we do business in 16 states, with 2,600 locations and 5,000 ATMs serving some 13 million customers. Protecting the applications that make the business operate and protecting the customer data from loss are top priorities.

Until recently, NationsBank used a common method for protection against disasters. All transactions, e.g., a deposit or withdrawal at an ATM or a teller window, a loan approval, insurance payment, or a securities purchase, were transmitted in real time to data centers. At the end of each day, data transmitted to those centers would be copied onto tapes and trucked to off-site locations for safekeeping. In the event of a disaster striking one of the data centers, those backup tapes would have to be found, shipped to an alternate data center, and mounted. This labor-intensive approach is often referred to as the 'Chevy Truck Access Method' or CTAM.

A few years ago, NationsBank underwent a Business Impact Analysis (BIA) to determine precisely the impact various disasters would have on operations - the hard dollar loss for being unable to conduct business over a period of time. Business operations were polled to find out how long they could go without access to the data centers and what longer network outages would mean in lost revenue. The BIA process discovered that recovery using existing methods could take 48 to 72 hours. Clearly, what may have been tolerable for a smaller regional operation was no longer acceptable. Access had to be restored in 24 hours; if not, up to $50 million dollars could be lost. That figure didn't include harder to measure costs such as loss of customer faith.

In response to this situation, NationsBank elected to go with electronic vaulting, relying on IBM automated tape libraries, IBM's Business Recovery Service (BRS), several high-speed links, and CNT's Channelink network processors, the underlying technology connecting the NationsBank data centers to the IBM center. In addition to speed, the motivation behind these choices was the need for reliability and security.

T3 Links
Moving Critical Business Data

Electronic vaulting required a total of 16 T3 links pumping data from the data centers to the main IBM Recovery Center. Each T3 link had a bandwidth of 45 Mbps and moved data at a speed of 18 Gigabytes per hour or 41 Mbps. The CNT Channelink units were used to connect the T3 line to the NationsBank data center at one end and to the IBM Recovery Center on the other end. The IBM Recovery Center provides standby systems to ensure immediate availability of critical systems, applications, and backed up data, as well as a continuously operating network node to make certain the entire network infrastructure is connected to the recovery center when needed.

With electronic vaulting, NationsBank began backing up the entire data center operations, moving up to 288 Gigabytes of data per hour after the business day had ended. Equally important, in the event of one of the data centers being out of operation due to a tornado, flood, or other disaster, applications and data are available from the IBM Recovery Center in a fraction of the time it formerly took. In addition, NationsBank gains another strategically located facility in case of a disaster. The bank's critical systems are fully redundant, able to recover from even the worst sort of 'smoking hole' disaster, where one of our two data centers is obliterated.

The New Wrinkle:  DS-3 Data Compression

But the story doesn't end there. Last year, CNT approached NationsBank with a new idea: data compression on the T3 links. Data compression is common over slower WAN links, of course, but it had not been done on 45 Mbps T3 lines before. In early 1997, NationsBank agreed to become a beta test site for the new product, installing CNT units with the DS-3 Data Compression feature added to the T3 interfaces.

The results were dramatic. With DS-3 Data Compression from Computer Network Technology, NationsBank began to move 38 Gigabytes per hour on each link, more than doubling the throughput. The bank was able to eliminate eight T3 links from the data centers, each costing between $20,000- $40,000 per month. Now the network has a total of eight T3 lines, from the data centers to the IBM Recovery Center. Cutting the number of T3 circuits in half has resulted in an immediate and recurring savings of $240,000 a month.

Today, NationsBank is one of the few large financial institutions that backs up its entire data center operations. The backup system is working well as the disaster recovery network is tested twice a year to make sure everything is operational and can be restored in a timely manner. Continuous operations and disaster recovery solutions extend substantial benefits to NationsBank, but most importantly, to the customers who can trust that the bank is open for business, whenever they need, guaranteed.

William J. Douglas, CBCP, Sr. Vice President, NationsBanc Services, Inc. Mr. Douglas is responsible for the technology component of Business Continuity for NationsBank Corporation.

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