Magazine Article | July 1, 2004

Orchestrate High-Availability Government Applications

Source: Business Solutions Magazine

This integrator doubled revenue in two years by designing storage systems that ensure federal government applications remain operational in the event of a crisis.

Business Solutions, July 2004

Much like a symphony conductor directs musicians to play in concert with one another, VARs and systems integrators are often hired to ensure an organization's information technologies are implemented correctly and interact in harmony. Storage integrator IMS Systems, Inc. (Silver Spring, MD) takes this process a step further by ensuring the technologies it implements for federal government agencies are not only well integrated, but also never fail. The company designs storage systems that understand what critical data is required by government applications, monitor those applications, and provide a framework to make sure those applications remain operational, even in the event of a crisis.

This vertical focus is a recent development for IMS. Prior to 1999, the company was a general reseller of backup and restore products to several horizontal markets. However, driven by the Y2K concerns of the late nineties, federal government agencies placed renewed emphasis on information management, content management, and continuity of operations. The increased demand for data protection in government circles, combined with a reduction in commercial IT spending, prompted IMS to reevaluate its business model. The integrator educated itself on the government vertical and new storage technologies such as SANs (storage area networks), replication software, and application monitoring software to deliver the high-availability solutions federal agencies demand.

The Show Must Go On: The Emergence Of COOP Plans
Y2K issues forced government agencies to recognize the value of data because suddenly they were faced with the real possibility of losing it. This atmosphere not only generated radical fears involving the inadvertent launch of nuclear weapons, it also highlighted the impact interruptions in everyday government operations would have on our way of life. "Y2K helped the federal government realize that it is a show that cannot stop," says Scott Carson, CTO and managing director, technical services for IMS. "For example, disruptions in something as routine as processing and distributing social security payments can have major global implications. Y2K helped bring this to light and prompted the executive branch to issue specific directives to IT managers that will ensure their essential operations are available at all times."

The manifestation of these directives is known as a continuity of operations (COOP) plan. Every federal department and agency is required to develop and execute a COOP plan. Drafting the plan is usually the responsibility of the agency's CIO, while implementing the plan is generally a function of the IT department. The primary objectives of a COOP plan include ensuring the continuous performance of an agency's critical functions during an emergency; protecting essential facilities, equipment, records, and other assets; and achieving a timely recovery from an emergency and resumption of full service to customers. Characteristics of a sound COOP plan are outlined in FPC (federal preparedness circular) 65 issued on July 26, 1999, and IMS has dedicated itself to fully understanding this document as a means to attract federal government clients.

SANs, Replication, Application Monitoring Get COOP Plans In Tune
IMS doesn't typically participate in the COOP drafting process. Instead, it focuses on helping agency IT departments translate their CIO's COOP proposals into actual storage and information management action plans that can be executed. IMS then works in concert with the agency's IT department to actually install and fine-tune the solution. "Converting COOP plans from outlines on paper to working solutions requires much more than knowledge of the government vertical," says Carson. "It also requires expertise in the new technologies that deliver the availability features necessary for the plan to succeed."

For example, a fundamental stipulation for all COOP plans is the need to maintain multiple, geographically separate sites. The vast majority of federal agencies already fulfill this requirement, considering most have a headquarters in Washington, D.C. and branch offices in cities throughout the United States. "Until recently, the technology did not exist to allow federal agencies to take full advantage of their remote offices for COOP purposes," says Carson. "It is the increased maturity of technologies such as SANs, replication software, and application monitoring software over the past two years that has really turned the concept of high-availability into reality."

SANs allow agencies to consolidate their storage into one network, creating an environment where data can be allocated where it is needed and extended out to secondary sites using replication and application monitoring mechanisms. Replication software monitors the usage of storage at the primary agency location and sends a copy of this information to a designated remote location. Application monitoring software complements this action by monitoring the applications that actually use the stored data. If an application fails at the primary location, the software automatically prompts the application to start running at the secondary site.

For example, an e-mail server contains a server application, such as Microsoft Exchange, as well as several databases in which it stores e-mail messages. Replication software ensures there is a copy of each of the e-mail databases at a remote location. Application monitoring software monitors the Exchange process itself and uses the replicated data to start the application at the secondary site if necessary.

Keep Tempo With Content Management
According to Carson, it is also important for storage integrators in the government market to keep abreast of trends in content management. "The need to manage content is driving storage and availability technologies," he says. "Government agencies, as well as commercial organizations, are being affected by regulations such as the Freedom of Information Act and Patriot Act. These acts require content to be readily available, produced within a certain amount of time, stored for a specific retention period, and ultimately destroyed. These are functionalities that are ultimately implemented in storage systems."

Furthermore, trends in content management affect the type and quantity of information that government agencies need or want to store. A few years ago, it may have been considered a luxury to store and manage e-mail. Today, it is a mission-critical application that generates a huge amount of information often regarded as definitive public record. For example, e-mail is a major business driver for the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). When people are offended by something they hear on the radio or television, they often send e-mail complaints to the FCC. Receiving, responding to, and maintaining those records are one of the agency's primary responsibilities.

Government, High-Availability Focus Produces Notable Results
So far, IMS' focus on delivering high-availability storage systems has been a positive move for the company. The integrator doubled its revenues between 2002 and 2004 and anticipates a 33% revenue increase this year. A contributing factor to this growth is the fact that IMS modified its initial backup and restore expertise to fit the more vertically focused niche of government system availability.

"Prior to 1999, we were 100% focused on backup and restore," says Carson. "Today, backup and restore accounts for about 50% of our business, while availability software, such as LEGATO (Mountain View, CA) AAM and RepliStor (see sidebar on page 42), and SAN storage solutions account for the other 50%. This change in percentage breakdown doesn't mean we made our backup and restore segment smaller. We simply added the availability technologies to capitalize on the numerous COOP opportunities within the federal government. Many VARs and integrators are hesitant to work with government agencies because of their strict policies and adherence to budgets. Although the margins can be lower, federal opportunities are often larger than commercial jobs. The business is out there, and integrators that learn to work within the government system like we have can do very well."