Accounting firm overhauls data center - under budget

A need to consolidate and update storage technology propelled a 400-seat enterprise to overhaul its IT infrastructure and standardize on Windows -- on a budget that was meant for maintenance.

Imagine overhauling your entire IT system, especially storage, for the same amount of money budgeted for a year's maintenance on your existing equipment.

Consolidation, standardisation and the latest technology like an iSCSI storage area network (SAN) helped Schenck Business Solutions in the US do just that.

Schenck standardised on Windows technology, replacing its Fibre Channel SAN with a new iSCSI SAN built around EqualLogic's PS100 E storage arrays. The company also used other technologies that enabled it to consolidate its scattered infrastructure, revamp its corporate IT architecture, and upgrade its applications and desktop operating systems for $1.5 million, the same amount of money originally budgeted to maintain its existing system.

"We upgraded or touched every piece of equipment in the organisation," said Jim Tarala, Schenck's chief information officer. "We rolled Windows XP onto all the desktops, notebooks and Office 2003. We upgraded everything as well as redoing the entire WAN [wide area network], SAN and application software. We were able to do all this and still brought it in within the same dollar amount."

When Tarala was promoted to CIO in January 2004, he knew he had a challenge ahead of him since the budget had already been approved for the year.

Tarala purchased new, less expensive technology and standardised on Windows, taking advantage of Microsoft's volume licensing programs to help cut costs.

Frantic for standardisation
While Schenck is primarily a CPA firm, it has branched into other services, including medical billing, technology consulting and retirement planning.

Schenck has also grown partly through acquiring other companies; its employee ranks have grown to 400 users in 12 offices throughout Wisconsin. The company's technology grew in islands. Through the acquisitions, the company received an IBM AS 400, Novell networks, Windows systems and Citrix. The company had a maintenance and support headache. One example: The CRS package was based on Lotus Notes and didn't talk to anything else.

"What we needed to do was to standardise," Tarala said. "We needed some baselines for equipment, operating systems and software versioning. We also needed to improve our level of support to end users."

The most pressing problem was an old Clariion 4700 storage system from EMC that was undersized and badly cramping the company's expansion.

"We looked at replacing it with various models of EMC, HP and IBM, all on Fibre Channel," he said.

Tarala also researched iSCSI options from companies such as Stonefly. At another vendor's recommendation, the company looked at EqualLogic.

Schenck tested the technology by putting a couple of servers on the EqualLogic system, and ran some benchmarks on mass file transfers between the servers and the storage. The performance was equal or better to the EMC system and the cost was significantly less, he said.

"Up front, we probably saved about $60,000 [over upgrading the EMC] and, along with that, we got twice as much capacity -- 2.5 terabytes," he added.

The company has since added a second EqualLogic PS100 storage array at its Appleton data center and one in its backup data center in Green Bay.

The EqualLogic system is much easier and less expensive to manage than the 4700 it replaced, Tarala said.

"EqualLogic spent not even a day teaching our server people how to manage it and the concepts behind it. Now it's just like managing a switch or a server. From an ease of use standpoint, it's phenomenal," he said.

"All our servers boot from the SAN. It lets us re-engineer our whole concept of what a server is. Now it's just a front-end processing entrance with data over on the SAN. Even with boot volumes, we can bring up a new server for a third of what it cost us before," Tarala said.

The company chose Microsoft Windows as a standard platform after examining other alternatives such as Linux, partly because of the availability of applications.

"All of the major vendors are writing to Microsoft Standards like SQL and .NET," Tarala said.

Another key reason for going with Microsoft -- and another source of savings -- was shifting to Microsoft's Enterprise Agreement licensing for the Microsoft products the company needed. A volume licensing program for enterprises with more than 250 users, the Enterprise Agreement offers a range of Microsoft products at a discount -- typically 40% or more -- and lets the customer spread out payments over three years. Tarala estimates the savings at about $100,000 over six years.

Tarala added software that included SQL Server on several servers, Microsoft Exchange and converted the desktops and laptops to Windows XP.

"That gave us a core infrastructure we are now truly able to leverage," Tarala said. "For example, we just replaced our own internal accounting system with a SQL-based system. Now we have easier access to data and a better end-user experience."

But Tarala stressed there's still work to be done. "2004 was the year of infrastructure upgrade. In 2005 we're looking seriously at consolidation, efficiency and productivity. Now that we're current, our applications can talk together. Now let's start using them and giving the users the productivity that's finally in front of them," he said.

Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last 20 years he has been a freelance writer specialising in storage and other computer issues.

Read more on Networking hardware