VIA backs it up

Often it takes many months after an IT implementation is completed to find out if the solution was successful. A year ago VIA Rail was putting the finishing touches on a backup solution as the dreaded Y2K was quickly approaching. Today, the solution has been given the “all is fine” stamp of approval.

Like many companies, VIA’s prior back-up solution used disparate technology in a decentralized environment, making it neither easy to manage nor regulate.

“[Our solution] was quite decentralized, we had tape drives attached to many different servers and there was a lot of manual intervention for changing tapes…so we wanted to centralize and automate the back-up process and automate the tape changing process,” said Ghislain Pelletier, senior analyst in technical services for VIA.

The back-up solution was required to work with a variety systems. “We have Novell file servers, Unix boxes, a couple of OS2 machines, quite a bit of NT and some PC workstations, some Oracle databases, Microsoft SQL and a lot user data and Lotus Notes,” Pelletier said, listing off a veritable smorgasbord IT platforms and requirements.

“I wanted to centralize and automate because we were having way too many problems, our old back-up software wasn’t doing very well cross-platform, it didn’t have the performance we needed and it wasn’t scaleable,” Pelletier explained. “Every time we added a server it was, ‘So, how are we going to back this guy up?,’ because it wasn’t centralized,” he said.

“So we were looking at reliability, scalability, performance – something that really worked well on all of the platforms – and to remove any manual intervention.”

The back-up solution was for VIA’s Montreal headquarters and its maintenance centre.

bringing in outside help

VIA decided to bring in Montreal-based MasStor Technologies Inc. to help find and implement the solution.

“We went to [VIA] and did a thorough analysis of what their needs were, and of the solutions out there in the marketplace,” said Michel Rail vice-president of MasStor. “Veritas was the one that best suited the customer’s requirements,” he explained.

Rail said it is important to predict a company’s storage growth rate in order to plan for future growth. This is necessary, he said, since it is often difficult for the corporate finance people to swallow a quarter million dollar back-up solution investment. If you can project growth so no new implementations are needed for at least three years, the pill is easier to swallow, according to Rail. Veritas Software Corp.’s solution was deemed to be the best match for VIA’s requirements, Rail added.

Given VIA’s variety of operating systems, integration became a key issue for any solution. According to Alan Freedman, research manager for servers, workstations and storage with IDC Canada in Toronto, there is a lot of movement toward implementing storage area networks, and one of the biggest issues is the integration between heterogeneous data centres. This is an issue Veritas seems to solve fairly well, Freedman said.

“So the hardware vendors are having a lot of trouble with the integration and it doesn’t seem that Veritas is getting caught in the middle of that, so that is a big positive,” he said.

Veritas’ solution is interoperable with all of the different vendors, he added.

“[The solution] can be run through a browser, it can be run through a command line interface, it can be run through an NT workstation, there are a number of different ways that people can implement this,” explained Fred Dimson, Veritas general manager of Veritas Canada in Toronto.

speeding up the back-up

For many companies, speed is almost as important a requirement as flexibility.

“When you are working with a back-up window and you have to get the back-up done in two hours, if the tape fills up after an hour and the person doesn’t change tape for 20 minutes, because it takes him or her 20 minutes to actually go and change the tape, well a lot of the time, you blow the window,” Pelletier said.

“So we wanted to protect ourselves there too.”

Freedman agreed. “The traditional methods of back-up are taking too long, they are exceeding the back-up window in terms of time so…these software vendors are shrinking the amount of time, so it does fit into the back-up window,” he explained.

Now that the implementation is a year old, VIA can make the judgement that it was successful, in fact, pretty much glitch free, according to Pelletier.

One area that is still being worked on is the automation of the duplication of the tapes. That is where the machine is told to make a back-up of the back-ups. That should be solved soon, Pelletier said.

“That is about the only thing that I can say that we might possibly have a glitch,” Pelletier said.

He said the system stability has been a pleasant surprise and that there have been no application crashes.

The software that runs on the clients (both PCs and servers) has also been very stable. “We have installed the client and it hasn’t caused any problems, which was nice to see, [since] sometimes over time things happen,” he said.

Pelletier said he would like to see the Veritas system use a calendar based scheduler instead of one based on the seven days of the week. Because of this he can’t automate the month end backup for the last Saturday of each month, which is when VIA does its monthly back-ups.

Soon Via will also be adding the Veritas solution to some servers in Moncton, N.B. and Toronto.