Smart organizations strive to make customers happy and keep them happy. However, to be successful purveyors of customer satisfaction they must always be cognizant of the unique needs of new customers, while also monitoring the evolving requirements of existing customers. Yet, all of this begs the question: Who are the customers? The answer is obvious when considering the company as a single entity, but it is less clear when looking at individual departments within a company or the needs of IT users from outside the company.
For example, traditionally, the IT department’s only customers were other internal departments that used the organization’s systems. Today, it’s not that simple. Now, systems often directly interact with external customers, suppliers, shipping companies, financial services, and others. In addition to employees, a variety of external users are painfully aware of internal challenges that arise when a system is down or not functioning properly. When that happens, those internal and external users expect the problem to be resolved just as rapidly as customers. Consequently, IT now serves multiple masters.
Because all organizations are, to some degree, dependent on information technology, system downtime frequently translates into operational downtime. After years of automating the core functions that facilitate critical business processes, many companies no longer have the option of reverting to manual operations. If their systems stop, customers may not be able to access product information or place orders, the shipping department may not be able to ship goods, and the billing department may not be able to invoice customers or perform other key functions. This impact becomes even greater when interfacing with external users. For example, when orders for supplies or shipping documents are transacted via Web sites or other e-business interfaces, an internal outage affects other businesses too.
Unfortunately, system downtime is inevitable. The challenge is ensuring that it does not result in operational downtime. Although disasters and hardware failures are costly, they are among the least frequent of downtime causes. In truth, many organizations never experience a disaster, and modern systems are reliable enough to make failures exceptionally infrequent. However, regular maintenance – often something as simple as backing up data nightly – can necessitate significant daily downtime. In a 24x7 organization that depends on its systems to sustain its operations, this is not acceptable.
While operational excellence is a key success factor for any organization, cost control is also important. All stakeholders expect the IT department to work hard to keep costs down and still minimize downtime in order to help optimize customer satisfaction for both internal and external customers. On the surface, these outcomes would appear to be mutually exclusive goals. How can the IT department simultaneously cut costs and implement solutions that will increase data and system availability?
No Need to Gamble
Ameristar Casinos provides an excellent example of how to accomplish these dual objectives. Over the course of its history, Ameristar experienced significant growth both organically and through acquisitions. Growth was welcome, but it presented challenges for the IT department. For one thing, as the company expanded, additional servers were added and acquired, resulting in an infrastructure that was spread across numerous states. Managing these dispersed IT assets was expensive.
Although Ameristar had never experienced a system failure, the IT department was well aware of the risk and knew that a lengthy outage would be intolerable. As the company’s infrastructure was reaching its capacity limits and becoming obsolete, Ameristar recognized an opportunity to reduce costs while protecting its systems against downtime.
When it came time to acquire new servers, Ameristar decided to consolidate the applications running on five independent servers on a single server, thereby lowering hardware and administration costs. During the final planning stages, Ameristar acquired a property that had two aging servers running a high availability (HA) product. The technology replicates all production data and applications to a second server and then facilitates the rapid transfer of operations from the primary server to the backup if the need arises.
Ameristar used the software in a novel way. In addition to continuing its traditional application on the two acquired servers, the company also used the builtin replication technology to simplify the server consolidation project by mirroring and segregating data during the merger.
Ameristar now runs its operations on two mirrored servers. The primary server, which supports all of Ameristar’s properties in multiple states, is more powerful than the multiple servers it replaced and delivers higher performance than was available in the old environment. The second server is a real-time replica of the primary server that can assume the production role if the primary server is unavailable for any reason.
The ability to switch to a back-up server is an essential element in ensuring HA. However, the IT infrastructure has to be in good order prior to performing a “role swap” between the primary and back-up servers, particularly in stressful, unplanned situations when operations must be recovered quickly after an outage. Conducting periodic role-swap testing is critical to ensure that the switchover will proceed smoothly when the need arises.
One of the ways technology companies can make life easier for customers is to use customer input and awareness to develop features that are meaningful to customers. For example, Ameristar’s software provides a virtual role swap facility that allowed the company to conveniently test the swap-readiness of its mirrored systems, without putting operations in jeopardy if problems should arise.
Winner Takes All
The benefits that Ameristar has seen from its consolidated HA environment are measurable and considerable. Replacing multiple leased servers with two purchased servers reduced hardware costs by 43 percent over three years.
In addition, Ameristar experienced a significant reduction in downtime. In the year before the company installed its HA environment, the need to shut down systems to upgrade operating systems and apply software fixes resulted in 540 hours of system downtime. Now, Ameristar experiences only 32 hours of downtime per year.
A benefit that is more difficult to quantify, but real nonetheless, is peace of mind. “Before the consolidation project, Ameristar had eight servers that had never been recovered. There was real potential for downtime and even data loss during the project. With the company’s new software, the problem was solved. Now Ameristar has a tested and proven HA solution in place that is faster and more efficient. More importantly, Ameristar Casinos will never have to let its internal or external customers down.
Availability: The Name of the Game
However one defines “customer,” it is obvious a happy customer is a well-served customer. In a world where businesses are utterly dependent on their systems, serving customers at all, let alone well, requires business applications that are available without fail. In the light of regular system maintenance and occasional unplanned downtime events, keeping customers happy increasingly requires an investment in an effective, high availability solution that prevents system downtime becoming business downtime. Furthermore, delivering this functionality in a way that consolidates hardware and saves the IT department money puts big smiles not only on the faces of the IT department’s customers, but also on the faces of the organization’s CFO and shareholders.
Henry Martinez is senior vice president of engineering with Vision Solutions, Inc., a vendor offering high availability and disaster recovery solutions for AIX, Windows, and IBM i-environments. Martinez has a broad spectrum of experience in the application of information technologies including: traditional IT, consumer electronics, the utility industry, aerospace, and industrial automation. He has managed global, virtual research, and development labs, launched high-technology start-ups, established domestic and international manufacturing operations, and negotiated and implemented technology alliances/transfers.