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Distance: Meeting the new mandate for disaster recovery

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Case Study: Disaster recovery on a tight budget
Qs the nation's

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largest airline fights for its life, Apolonio Maranion's backup and recovery systems could play a big role in the carrier's survival.

Maranion is a systems administrator for UAL Loyalty Services Inc. (ULS), the e-commerce wing of beleaguered United Airlines. The Chicago-based airline's parent company, UAL Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors in December 2002.

Company executives and industry analysts both call United's vaunted customer outreach and rewards programs crucial for keeping the company aloft as it struggles to restructure in a sagging economy.

That's where Maranion comes in. In addition to supporting the airline's main Web sites--United.com, UALCargo.com and local sites in 23 countries--his ULS IT team handles all online transactions for the airline's rewards programs, including Mileage Plus (for frequent travelers), Silver Wings Plus (for senior citizens) and MyPoints.com (for frequent visitors to participating stores and restaurants). Together, the loyalty sites serve nearly 1.5 million unique users monthly--thousands more use them to connect to United's online booking engine.

As United continues downsizing, keeping those sites running smoothly and securely is more important than ever. Says Maranion: "When you're reducing the number of city ticket offices and you're reducing the number of people at the [airport] counters, you need to make [the customer's] online experience as robust as possible." That's easier said than done, considering that ULS remains under stringent cost-cutting mandates, with little hope for increasing IT headcount anytime soon.

Before the downturn, ULS outsourced all its Web operations--including backup and recovery--to managed hosting companies such as Laurel, MD-based Digex Inc. But as airline travel plummeted following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the continuing economic slump, United moved all e-commerce activity in-house.

Today, the ULS IT group operates from a 4,000 square foot data center in the basement of a United-owned building in Elk Grove, IL, about 20 miles west of Chicago. Its backup facility is in nearby Schaumburg, IL. Although the centers are fewer than six miles apart, Maranion calls the distance sufficient for protecting ULS' 20TB of data because the Chicago area is unlikely to suffer from a disaster--such as an earthquake--that would cause widespread damage.

However, because the two data centers are so close, ULS does exercise unusually stringent security measures, such as limited access (biometric palm-print readers for IT staff, escorts for everyone else) locked storage racks and cameras throughout both facilities.

The ULS set up consists of a storage area network (SAN) using three Hitachi Data Systems Lightning 9960s subsystems, two in the main data center and one in the backup facility. Initially, Maranion says, ULS used EMC products, but switched to Hitachi to save money. The Hitachis connect to 200 Windows and Unix servers over five Brocade SilkWorm port switches. Maranion says he can easily add new clients. A Gigabit Ethernet network links the two centers: A suite of Veritas software products, including Net Backup 4.5, handles storage and duplication of thousands of member transactions daily.

ULS also uses a collection of Quantum DLT 7000 and 8000 tape drives for storing archival tapes in libraries in each facility, but Maranion says he doesn't use tape drives for routine backups because he doesn't consider them cost effective.

In a true spirit of efficiency, ULS uses the backup servers in Schaumburg for staging whenever they're not in use for disaster recovery. If the Elk Grove center fails, everything switches to the backup facility, automatically shutting down staging activity until normal business resumes. Meanwhile, says Maranion, "there's no single point of failure within the United environment."--Anne Stuart

New names here include DiskSites in Santa Clara, CA; Tacit Networks Inc. in South Plainfield, NJ; and Actona Technologies Inc., formerly called VersEdge, in Los Gatos, CA. Theirs is a slightly different take on existing replication vendors including NSI (maker of Double-Take software), but the fundamental concept is much the same.

Some companies are attempting to boost the speed of iSCSI-based devices. Alacritech Inc. in San Jose, CA, makes a line of storage accelerators for Windows and Linux. They move both block- and file-level traffic, and offload data movement via a custom adapter.

EVault Inc., in Walnut Creek, CA, is an older player with a new tale. Formerly a software services provider, it now sells the bulk of its service as a software suite. Its InfoStage family includes agents to scan the server for new data, dedicated hardware to send the data out to remote locations and management and monitoring tools to make sure it all happens correctly.

For its part, SANgate Systems, Southborough, MA, is working on the next generation of the SANblaster--a data migration appliance--which will be an in-line device that's part and parcel of the storage area network (SAN) infrastructure, says Tom Grave, SANgate's product marketing manager. Where today's device is an appliance that's used only when needed, tomorrow's will be a permanent part of the SAN architecture, used for data replication in applications including disaster recovery.

Finally, there are some new twists to the old standby--tape backup. Computer Network Technology (CNT) recently announced a way to stream data to tape over IP. Using CNT's UltraNet Edge Storage Router, the technique is called tape pipelining, which uses buffering and error recovery to do for Fibre Channel (FC) what's been available for some time for ESCON, and can go "thousands of miles," the vendor promises.

State Street, a financial services company, is one happy user. "By deploying CNT's remote tape pipelining solution, we were able to use the same storage infrastructure for both disk mirroring and tape backup," says Mark Sontag, assistant vice president, manager of technical services at State Street's Kansas City office. "Additionally, the UltraNet Edge's tape emulation and compression capabilities helped us increase the throughput over our available IP bandwidth. The full backup of approximately 1TB of data was decreased from 18 to 24 hours to an amazing four-and-a-half hours."

Veritas has updated NetBackup 4.5 to make disaster recovery easier and announced a new version of its Global Data Manager software. The new version of its Global Data Manager software includes a tool that manages and monitors backup and recovery processes for both Veritas NetBackup and Backup Exec. Global Data Manager gives administrators a dashboard view of multiple data protection processes that may be spread across an enterprise.

Bob Maness, Veritas' senior director of product marketing, says that administrators can use Global Data Manager to efficiently manage remote office backup with Backup Exec and multiplatform enterprise data protection with NetBackup by controlling the processes and policies from a single point. Says Maness: "It makes the road to consolidation of backup and restore systems easier."

Which product for you?
Finding a backup product is the easy part. Figuring out which one might work best in your storage environment is the difficult part. Most customers--particularly large ones--need to think about a multitiered approach to backup and recovery, experts say. One product isn't going to work for all applications. IT and business users need to sit down together and figure out what constitutes the company's mission-critical applications, and how many minutes or hours those can afford to be down. Then they need to do the same for their second-tier and third-tier applications--things like payroll or human resources, which probably won't need to be restored right away.

Once the pecking order is established, figure out what you're willing to spend. The most expensive types of solutions involve disk mirroring, the next expensive are disk-to-disk and the least expensive are tape backup. You'll probably want to throw the best backup at your most critical applications.

Whatever you decide, know that the remote-backup product train is just beginning to roll. New companies are springing up that promise to make remote backup easier. Older, established storage companies are beefing up their disaster recovery options--sometimes by upgrading established products or coming out with feature packs or modules that work side-by-side with their backup offerings. Many other vendors will be jumping on this bandwagon, and it will be a matter of deciding which approach makes most sense for your particular situation.

This was first published in May 2003

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