I recently had a chance to interview Jamison West of Arterian. Jamison, who founded the company that is now Arterian in 1995, envisions a future where every small to mid-sized company will have an IT partner become a vital part of its core operations team keeping them free from disaster and flourishing.
SoftwareDisastersBlog: How do you help your customers prevent and prepare for IT disasters?
Jamison West: We see with our customers that reliance on connectivity is higher than it’s ever been for businesses to execute and support their customers. People now expect email to work like instant messaging, sent and received as fast as they type it. We try to prevent IT issues by adding redundancy to make sure that if there are problems — natural disasters or bad weather like we had recently in Seattle — our customers are still up and running at least for critical operations.
Another key area for us is setting up backup solutions. This is how often we take copies of files off your server, how long do we retain them, how long do we want to be able to take a file and restore it. Backup solutions are a simple and effective way to improve resiliency. For instance, we had one customer whose primary server went down and we were able to bring the snapshot and spin it back up as a virtual machine in about 45 minutes. This was a very inexpensive solution for the level of continuity they achieved.
SDB: Companies are becoming more reliant on IT systems being up and running. How does this affect how IT departments are run?
JW: My experience is working with companies whose IT departments aren’t keeping pace with technology. This creates a great opportunity for us to come in and help provide solutions that are less expensive and more agile than what they experienced before. Agility in adapting to new technology trends and how people actually use IT systems to achieve business results is the key to how a successful IT team is run – whether that’s in-house or outsourced.
Business continuity handles situations where hardware fails, but we need to workaround these problems so you can continue the business. For example, we’ve set up systems where we take virtual servers and run them so we can get things running immediately. Being able to temporarily virtualize on local devices or in the cloud means you can solve todays problems quickly.
Because we’re looking at the risks and thinking about uptime, we’re able to raise issues about factors outside of IT. You might need to look at alternative office space or facilities, or your telephones might go down. The lines are continuing to blur between business infrastructure & IT.
Having a comprehensive plan that’s bigger than just IT is key, but often IT can be the forcing function to get you started.
SDB: What’s the hardest part of improving resiliency and continuity of businesses?
JW: I’ll start by saying what’s become easier is that some vendors have gotten good at making the technology simpler to set up and maintain.
What’s gotten harder is justifying the budgetary requirements and establishing their risk tolerance. A lot of resilience is like insurance; if nothing went wrong they might not see the value of it. But when things do go wrong it becomes very vivid and the value is clear. Many of our customers get why they need backups, What most people aren’t willing to spend on is business continuity, because they aren’t sure of their risks and the value of mitigating those risks upfront. Until it’s too late.
Operationalizing resiliency is tough, and doing the planning is very challenging. Many people hope for the best, and cross their fingers. There are lots of disparate systems across our clients, and there are lots of different technology. If certain servers go down, a small business might be OK for a day, but don’t take down their phones for 5 minutes!
We are starting to see our medium-sized customers starting to invest more in building resiliency for the back-office operations. Depending on the industry, if a facility goes down, you have serious challenges and the whole business has to stop. In those situations, they might not even have staff available to come into work. But they want to make sure that their admin staff can do the core day-to-day operations — answer phones, send email, bill customers – even if they can’t provide their product or service.
SDB: Can you talk about a recent example of a disaster or major IT problems you encountered, and how you recovered from it?
We had a huge mess with Seattle Snowmageddon 2012! Every client we had with redundant internet connectivity were able to have remote workers during the disaster period. Those that had a single connection were for the most part not able to function through the storm. For my company, roughly two-thirds of our staff had power at home, and some went to Starbucks to use the internet so we were up and running. And we tell our clients that if they were set up the same way, they could be too.
Another recent example of a small IT disaster is this morning we had a client-server crash and burn. We had recommended them to use a HW RAID 5. They chose to save a buck and bought a cheaper server that used software based raid that is much less reliable. Now they can’t run their business today. We have to educate our customers to help them make the right decisions about where to make things redundant and invest.
SDB: What are the most prevalent risks that you see in maintaining continuous uptime?
JW: The number one thing we see is server hardware failure. Servers are made of millions of tiny pieces that run hot it’s just a fact that they fail. If you’re willing to spend the money, you can get redundancy, but it adds up fast. When designing redundancy, we look at mean time to failure, and the question is how far back can you afford to lose data, and how long can you wait until it’s back up and running. If you can afford to go a week without losing the data, the solution can be cheap. But if you can’t live with that, you need to buy a better solution.
Cloud helps you get rid of servers, so you can change the dynamics of your infrastructure risks. We’re not afraid of the cloud because anything that adds value to our customers and helps us become a more trusted advisor we see as progress. We see our opportunity to be the ‘last mile’ for the larger service providers, and people will always need help demystifying and operationalizing systems for their businesses, and help making purchasing decisions.
For example, every small business used to take tapes offsite. Now with cheaper storage and bandwidth in the cloud, we can reduce the human risks of tapes getting dropped or broken. This is a huge example of how backup and recovery has changed with cloud.
What we see coming is the ability to really virtualize an entire IT system in the cloud. I can use IaaS environments today and not have to worry about it (except to the extent that I trust the service provider).
Data is more complex than its ever been, systems are spread all over the place, you have multiple cloud providers, so the complexity is where we can help our customers. Some people think that if they’re in the cloud they don’t have to think about it anymore.