Storage capacity: back-up to the future

If you think you've got storage capacity and back-up problems, imagine the scale that Internet service providers have to cope...

If you think you've got storage capacity and back-up problems, imagine the scale that Internet service providers have to cope with. Marcia McLeod talks to one such company that believes it has enough capacity to support the growth in data

Internet service providers (ISPs) are easy scapegoats for system failures. If your e-mail was not received, blame your ISP. PC crashes whilst online can be blamed on the ISP, too. But spare a thought for the ISP's conundrum: the more customers it attracts, the more traffic it has to cope with and the greater the need for storage and back-up services.

Planet Online claims its storage requirements are increasing by a massive 1,600% every year, and that's just within its own network. The company, which was founded in 1995, now has more than 4,000 UK customers using its Internet service, Web hosting and application services. A datacentre service caters for 800 customers. It also offers a "virtual ISP" called Connect and Go, which allows customers to resell (or give away) Planet Online's ISP capacity to their customers; FreeServe is its biggest client.

"All customers, particularly Web hosting ones, have the potential to generate huge amounts of data: Web site data, transaction records, graphics, sound, video, etc," says Ian Massingham, manager of operational business development at Planet Online. "If the system fails, the customer loses transaction records and might not be able to fulfil an order.

"Connect and Go customers could lose details of their subscriber base - name, location, password, some profiling information and so on. We must be able to store data in a way that is secure and recoverable."

Initially, Planet Online used a bespoke storage system written in-house. It was, says Massingham, all right for back-up, but it only supported Unix. In addition, restoring data was done by searching through each tape to find the desired data or image. "It could take hours to find the right thing," he says.

Since Planet Online was beginning to support Windows NT, it built a different back-up system using Seagate Backup Executive to cope with the new operating system. But by December 1998, the large increases in the client base, particularly for managed services, spurred the company to buy an integrated storage solution.

"We thought IBM's Network Storage Manager would work. It didn't. It was not reliable enough and we had problems with the robotics."

The situation reached breaking point last summer. "We underestimated our storage needs by 400%," Massingham admits. "We had to look at other vendors."

Having examined numerous companies, including Clariion (now EMC), IBM and Sun, Planet Online opted for StorageTek to provide tape robotics and tape drives and Veritas to license its Net Backup Software, which runs on a Sun server. The system went live early this year.

StorageTek was chosen as lead integrator. "We needed a single purchasing interface and a project managementcontact," Massingham emphasises. "It is important to be able to rely on your vendor when implementing rapid change."

Two tape robotics storage centres have been set up at two sites three kilometres apart in Leeds. Veritas uses BP Vault to handle data replication between the sites.

Initially, the system was used internally to back up the company's own messaging and e-mail systems, databases, transaction handling, billing and stock control.

Customers can either interrogate back-up storage themselves, or ask Planet Online to do it for them. "Most customers aren't even aware of the back-up until they need it; it's transport to them. However, some more sophisticated users have unusual back-up requirements we have to meet; for example, a system for Broker to Broker, an ASP for international share dealing and exchange trading instructions, is required by law to keep data for seven years."

Planet Online will not say what it spent on the system, but StorageTek marketing manager Alistair Blackburn says, "The costs of back-up lie not just in hardware or software, but in the management of it and the need to replicate as well as protect data. Anyone managing substantial growth faces the dilemma of getting the right data on the right storage medium. Users want to be able to push a button and get a response."

Planet Online is still expanding. Two datacentres in the UK, one in Amsterdam and one in Frankfurt are being boosted by centres in Dublin and Zurich. Data replication sites will have to be extended. But StorageTek's tape capacity is running at 120-140 gigabytes of compressed data per piece of media, and that is expected to double within 12 months.

Massingham is also keen to introduce management reporting "in a low impact way that does not need human intervention". Information on frequency of back-ups, compilation of failure details (eg file opens when back-up went down, resulting in failure to back up that file) and information on volumes of data not backed up could prove very useful to Planet Online and its customers. Web-based reporting tools are being evaluated at the moment, with the intention to implement the chosen product by spring 2001.

Even without the reporting, Planet Online is more than delighted with its StorageTek/Veritas back-up solution. "We have ample capacity to continue to support the extreme growths in data volume we are experiencing," says Massingham. No one could ask more than that.

What's in Planet Online's centres

Planet Online offers ISP, Web hosting and application services to 4,500 customers in the UK alone. It has four datacentres in Europe, with two more in the pipeline. Sun and Compaq are used both internally and for customers, although clients can bring their own hardware to Planet Online's datacentres.

Cisco provides the network backbone. A variety of network types are used - Token Ring, 100 megabit Ethernet and gigabit Ethernet. High-performance Lan switching is facilitated by more than 25 catalyst modular switches from Cisco.

The back-up system runs on Sun servers in two sites in Leeds, connected to Planet Online's network by gigabit Ethernet ports giving very high bandwidth.

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