Disaster Recovery: Virtual Project Yields Tangible Benefits

When Roland Etcheverry signed on as chiefinformation officer of Champion Technologies in 2004, the company was riding the oil and gas boom. Problem was, its information systems were the equivalent of a tired old horse.

Champion supplies oil and gas companies with a variety of chemicals used in their operations, such as corrosion inhibitors for pipelines and fluids used in drilling. With oil prices remaining near record highs, Champion has seen demand for its chemicals steadily increase in drilling hot spots around the globe.

The privately owned Houston company has recently been growing at a rate of 20% per year, with revenue of about $600 million in 2006. It is currently on pace to top $1 billion in revenue within four years. That growth, however, was severely straining the company’s information-technology infrastructure.

Etcheverry discovered soon after coming on board that Champion’s SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform, which was housed on an IBM AS/400 computer, was in desperate need of an upgrade. Reliability and performance were deteriorating as more users were added to the system. Outages were becoming a weekly nuisance, and the AS/400’s 350-gigabyte storage capacity was almost maxed out.

What’s more, the company was unable to extend SAP to its regional headquarters in Canada, Russia, Scotland, the Middle East, Singapore and Argentina because of networking issues. The company was using a virtual private network over the Internet to connect its regional offices, but the network was too slow to support SAP. SAP requires a low-latency network to function properly—that is, it requires a network that can pass packets of data quickly.

“Our goal is to be No. 1 in this business,” Etcheverry says, “but our systems weren’t up to the challenge.”

Over the past two years, Etcheverry and his team at Champion set about to fix those problems. Their solution, which included implementing a virtual storage system, yielded a number of unexpected benefits, including a much more streamlined and reliable disaster-recovery system.

The first challenge the technology department tackled was its network issues. As Etcheverry says, “We tried to focus our people on the things that would have the most impact on our day-to-day business.” In total, Champion employs about 43 people in its technology department and operates on an annual I.T. budget of about $12 million.

Champion contracted with Verizon Communications to implement a Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network that takes advantage of nodes Verizon has installed in 121 countries. MPLS is a widely supported method for speeding up data communications over IP networks, utilizing a packet labeling system to steer traffic. In so doing, it provides benefits such as allowing administrators to place higher priorities on certain types of traffic such as voice or video. In Champion’s case, it was able to leverage the new MPLS network to implement voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service.

Next, Champion turned its attention to upgrading its core computing platform. The company’s SAP software was housed on an AS/400 IBM minicomputer (IBM renamed the AS/400 System i in 2006) with 360 GB of built-in storage. The AS/400 was three years old at the time—hardly a relic by minicomputer standards—but Champion had already outgrown its capabilities.

Etcheverry, working with consulting partner RealTech, a German-based SAP specialist, first considered installing a newer, more powerful AS/400, at a cost of about $485,000. But Etcheverry wasn’t keen to remain on the AS/400. For starters, he found it difficult to hire quality AS/400 programmers. Recruiting searches had proved expensive and didn’t produce the quality of candidates he expected. His preference instead was to convert over to a Wintel (Windows/Intel) platform, which would offer him a wider range of hardware and software choices, as well as a much bigger talent pool.

On the surface, switching to a Wintel platform seems immensely more complicated than staying with the AS/400. With the minicomputer, all elements of the SAP system are housed in the one box—the SAP client, the DB2 database that serves SAP, as well as the 360 GB of storage. It’s a nice, tidy package. The Wintel alternative, by comparison, is the equivalent of replacing a bus with a fleet of taxicabs.

Champion’s SAP environment, which includes servers for applications, a “sandbox” for playing with new configurations, a development client where development activities take place, and a quality client where configuration changes are tested, now consists of 11 Dell 2850 two-core-processor servers. Each server costs about $6,500. The database system was converted from DB2 to Microsoft SQL, and is housed on two Dell 6850 four-core-processor servers, running about $13,000 each. The final component, the storage system, is housed on a series of RAID (redundant array of independent disks) boxes from Dot Hill Systems of Carlsbad, Calif., providing a combined total of 8.5 terabytes (TB) of storage. Champion also has an additional 7 TB of storage from Dot Hill for secondary systems such as its Microsoft Exchange e-mail system.

“One might argue that an AS/400 environment is much simpler to manage, and to a certain extent I would agree,” Etcheverry notes. “But we went down this path because I couldn’t find the people we needed, and I already had people trained in Microsoft on staff. Also, I didn’t like being held to one platform and proprietary software. Now I have more options and more bargaining power.”

Early in the project evaluation process, the tech team looked at implementing a virtual storage system. Etcheverry already had some experience implementing a virtual SAN (storage area network) at his previous employer, Cameron International, another Houston oil and gas specialty firm, and had gained an appreciation for the cost and ease of expansion benefits it provided.

A further consideration was that Champion needed a better disaster-recovery plan. The company had a bare-bones arrangement in place utilizing a SunGard Data Systems facility in Houston. Under the terms of the agreement, SunGard would make an AS/400 available in an emergency, and had two weeks to essentially duplicate Champion’s SAP environment, utilizing data that was backed up regularly. But when Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast in September 2005, the danger of having the company’s backup facilities in the same city as its headquarters became quickly apparent. So did the inadequacy of the arrangement. Two weeks was far too long to be without the company’s core enterprise system in the event of a real emergency.

“Our old [disaster recovery] system was outdated, and we had strong doubts whether we could continue to run our environment seamlessly if there were a disaster,” Etcheverry says. “We didn’t ever want to be put in that position again.”

Rita spared Houston, but to this day Etcheverry wonders what would have happened if Houston had taken a direct hit.

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