Merchandiser Avoids Identity Crisis With Reliable Storage

Increasing the server power and cutting jobs into smaller bites has improved backup reliability at American Identity.

July 13, 2004

4 Min Read
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Merchandiser Avoids Identity Crisis With Reliable Storage

Ever wonder where that flashy corporate logo emblazoned across company buildings, baseball caps and coffee mugs is actually housed?

It might just be at American Identity, which creates, maintains and promotes corporate and brand trademarks for hundreds of Fortune 1000 companies. These days, AI, which also stores and manages the imaging and other data associated with a corporate logo, is backing up 1.5 terabytes of data, which is forcing the company to upgrade its AIT 2-based tape drives to AIT 3 speed with more read/heads.

"The way things are going, I can see us going up to the maximum of 2.4 terabytes in the next 18- to 24 months on our Xiotech Magnitude SAN switch," said Jerry Lees, manager of network administration for American Identity, Overland Park, Kan.

AI, is ranked as the number one distributor of logoed merchandise in the U.S. by the Advertising Specialty Institute. CITGO, MasterCard International, Principal Insurance and the U.S. Olympic Committee are a few of its big-name clients.The biggest drain on AI's storage capacity is the custom Web sites it creates and runs for some of its clients to sell or purchase their logoed merchandise online. About 40 percent of the stored data originates from its Web site and traffic, including SQL server data that's generated from the Web environment, Lees said. In addition to the usual messaging overload, AI has felt the pinch from extraneous files that its users don't delete. These large image files from marketing materials, for example, eat up about 20 to 30 percent of its storage space, Lees said. "That's really devouring our storage," he said.

Lees and his team remotely back up 80 Windows 2000 and NT servers running on IBM E-Servers across three main sites: AI's headquarters in Overland Park; Orange City, Iowa; and Lansing, Mich. Each site has its own Syncsort BackupExpress appliance, as well as the requisite backup software on each server. The Windows servers are clustered on the SAN for redundancy and performance purposes. If a backup fails or if a lightning strike brings downs the server, the backup is automatically restarted on another server.

But keeping within AI's maximum 36-hour data backup window has been a problem. "We're not hitting that," Lees said. The biggest bottleneck is during the full system backup on Fridays, he said.

While conducting some performance tests, AI found that increasing the backup server power could help speed up its backups. "Our plan is to increase the power of the backup server, upgrade to faster (and more) read heads on the tape drives, and to implement as much backup across the SAN as possible," he said.

Meanwhile, AI also found an annoying quirk in its backup system: When part of a backup failed, the Syncsort system would report that the whole backup job had failed. That meant starting the entire backup job all over again, even if only a handful of files didn't get backed up.AI worked around this by splitting the groups of backups into smaller-sized jobs so IT can better pinpoint where the job failed. The "Web and SQL servers" backup group, for example, was spun off into System State Data, SQL Data and Drive Backup jobs. "Now we can drill down to where the actual failure occurred," Lees said. "We get a more reliable response back from Syncsort Backup Express as to whether the job completed successfully." The tradeoff, however, is that it didn't speed up the jobs themselves.

With its backyard in Tornado Alley, protecting its systems and data from natural disaster is obviously a major priority for AI. Still, the biggest backup nightmare for the company is accidentally deleted or overwritten files that need to be restored. "More often than not, it's 'Oops, I deleted or overwrote this,'" Lees said. "But obviously, a catastrophic hardware failure is a concern for us."

AI hasn't officially calculated its return on investment, but Lees said he's sure the backup system has already paid for itself in the nearly three years it's been running. The downside is that BackUp Express' user interface isn't the most friendly. "It's very 'Unix-esque,'" Lees said. "I'd like to see the interface get a little cleaner and easier to use."

Why not add disk-to-disk to the storage mix to up the backup performance? Lees said AI considered spinning its data from disk to disk and then to tape, but that wouldn't buy them any more than the multiple read/write tape head system. "It wasn't going to improve our performance much to the high-end tapes" we run, he said.

Sticking with tape, especially with advanced tape technologies such as AIT 3, makes sense for some companies. "Depending on how a company has their backup environment architected, they may not even be pushing the limits of high-speed tape," said Nancy Hurley, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, Portland, Ore. But Hurley said most companies today use disk as an interim backup target, and then send the data to tape for long-term archival.0

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