Uptime is Money

High avilability is an area that vendors have tended to dominate but with cross compatible operating systems and best-of-breed hosting centres being built, there is increasing scope for channel players to get involved.

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By  Guy Mathew Published  January 3, 2002

Uptime is Money|~||~||~|The field of high availability computing has been growing in importance over recent years as companies rely on their IT systems more and more. Solutions like ERP and CRM need IT that is completely reliable if the company is to run smoothly while businesses involved in e-commerce transactions and e-business cannot afford to have their computers offline, even for short periods of time. The computing requirements of such businesses tend to be expensive and complicated. In addition there is the worry of outside factors such as natural disasters, fire and power shortages. To safeguard data and business critical systems there is a need for complete back up and disaster recovery plans to ensure minimal downtime. The expansion of the internet as a business tool has led to the need becoming more common despite the cost. Medium sized enterprises now need the kind of IT capability that was the preserve of the biggest companies a few years ago. So far the major hardware vendors are driving the technology, but it is an area where the channel has a role to play because customers do not want to be tied to one vendor anymore.

Any problem that prevents a computer working is something that can be tackled by a high availability solution, from a PC with a faulty disk to a server room burned down. But in conventional terms it usually means solutions like data centres comprising servers, storage, applications and back up that are available as close to 24/7 as possible. As Hein van de Merwe, IT architect at Sun says: “High availability is a pure time function.” Any downtime is going to adversely affect users of the system and their business.
Van de Merwe says problems in high availability are caused by three possible culprits: people, process and product. The first two account for 40% each, and product causes just 20% of downtime in his estimation. To address this, the first goal is to make hardware as resiliant as possible and back that up with features such as hot swappable components and automated recovery that allow the system to keep running. People and processes are much harder to engineer for so the aim is to minimise unplanned downtime caused by hardware.

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Businesses vary tremendously in their requirements and for some having the very highest availability is not crucial given the cost. Others must have ‘five nines’ (99.999% uptime) at all costs. Siamak Kia, business manager, e-hosting and outsourcing IBM Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan, explains: “Someone who is selling online with 99% availability is going to have three and a half days a year that they are not online, that’s nearly 87 hours. That is lost business and you also lose customer loyalty because they logon and find the site doesn’t work. You have to look and decide, ‘What does it mean to me and my business to have 99.9% availability?’ That is only eight hours downtime.”

Alternatively, if a company is using its systems for an ERP program, rather than e-commerce, it is perfectly feasible to plan three and a half days downtime to fall on holidays when the company is not doing business anyway. However, there is always the possibility of unplanned downtime, no system is perfect. Then you have to have a disaster recovery program in place. That is where storage backup, mirror sites (where there is a complete duplicate of the system in place at a separate location) and redundant systems come in. Some companies in the region are still not aware of its importance according to Herbert Zierl, general manager, HP Services Middle East. “I have been with customers running business critical applications without any failover scenarios, doing some back up but realising they have to change a disk so they have to reload their application. And this is in the financial industry,” he says incredulously.

What Zierl is focusing on is the need common to all businesses, which is maximise return on investment. There is no point in using the best equipment if it is not correctly configured for the use to which it is being put. A lot of systems will be made up of parts from different vendors so it is definitely not a plug and play solution. The complexity of implementing an enterprise-scale high availability system means that there are few channel companies capable of such a project by themselves. The expertise required is both broad and deep so businesses naturally approach the vendors first. But the vendors do not necessarily do everything themselves. All the major hardware vendors pointed out that their channel partners are involved at some stage of an implementation.

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Although vendors have always had service divisions to roll out new technology, Compaq in particular has refocused its corporate strategy to make services a bigger part of its business. High availability is an area where it is taking a holistic approach by providing hardware, applications and backing them up with Service Level Agreements (SLA). Dr Samer Chaar, general manager of Compaq Gulf and Levant, said: “We are backing up extended mission critical services that will allow us to come to our customers and put the SLA in place. Customers then don’t need to worry about the infrastructure because we are not guaranteeing a piece of hardware or an application, we are guaranteeing your business uptime.”

The Egypt Cyber Centre (ECC), built mainly with HP hardware (it also uses Cisco networks) is one of the first hosting centres in the Middle East. Based in Cairo it offers all the services a small to medium sized business, or indeed large enterprise, might need. But the motive for building such a centre is clearly found in the desire of smaller companies to gain the benefits of technology without the investment or risk levels of going it alone. The ECC aims to be the future for companies unwilling to take on those risks. It can make use of considerable economies of scale provided it attracts the customers. The $30 million 2800m² facility offers shared and dedicated hosting on Windows 2000 or HP Unix servers as well as security features such as multi-layered firewalls, physical fire precautions, load balancing and mirroring and fully redundant back up. Although some industry analysts are skeptical whether there is a market for such a project in the Middle East Zierl has no doubts. “It is finished and the first customers are on board.”

However, Kia thinks that IBM’s facility at Dubai Internet City (DIC) will offer the best solution in the region as it offers the most complete range of services. “We think we can come up with cheaper resources in this part of the world and deliver the same services [as other IBM hosting centres in Europe and the US] on a lower cost model. DIC itself can bring unique values to the project [being tax-free], in fact we have seen interest from companies in the US to do their hosting over here.”

One of the reasons for the trend towards hosted solutions for high availability requirements is the growth in demand for IT from SMBs. “E-business is supposed to transform your business but the model is very unpredictable and the technology changes fast so a lot of companies do not want to make that sort of commitment, they would rather let us take on the responsibility and outsource it,” explains Kia.

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Zierl points out that there is a greater choice for SMEs than there was in the past. “If they decided to do something with e-commerce they needed to invest in technology and resources that was not necessarily part of their core competency. If IT wasn’t a core competency then you needed to put a lot of effort and focus to be successful with that kind of implementation.”

Compatibility is an issue for all businesses with high availability requirements and the advent of systems that are capable of using more than one operating system means that vendors no longer have a monopoly to tie customers to them. Intel architecture servers are dominant at the lower end of the spectrum but the operating systems can be Windows 2000, NT, Netware or Unix so if legacy systems are involved it will require integration and vendors service arms want a part of that business. The situation presents independent partners with an opportunity. Schlumberger’s recently unveiled Standard Secure Connectivity Centre is a good demonstration of the potential advantages. It uses best-of-breed solutions for servers, networking, applications and storage without having a tie-in to any one vendor. As well as rapidly changing markets, businesses have to deal with rapid changes in technology so the independence can be an advantage.
The expansion of the high availability market to medium-sized businesses and the cross compatibility now available mean that vendors are having to try new ways of marketing their services. There are opportunities for channel players to find niches in the market. Zierl admits that HP were a little slow to spot the trend but he says: “We have more business opportunities than we can tackle at the moment, the phone doesn’t stop ringing. But you have to have the right people in services and you can’t just pull them out of your pocket.”

Even if some vendors are playing catch-up they are not likely to leave their partners out in the cold. Chaar explains Compaq’s view: “We are focusing a lot, particularly in this region on the small to medium sized businesses and we have launched a lot of projects in tandem with our channel partners. The SMB space requires a lot of things, it is not only the boxes, it is the applications layer, the network layer, warranties and this where our partners plug-in. They add a lot of value and provide a lot of expertise in the layers mentioned. So in any one of those projects we always engage with our partners.”
That stacks up to a great opportunity for channel companies to capitalise on.
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