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Volume 8, Number 1 -- January 8, 2008

Vision Seeks to Simplify HA Options with 'Hybrid' Solutions

Published: January 8, 2008

by Alex Woodie

Things used to be simpler for buyers of i5/OS high availability software. While there were more HA vendors to chose from, most of the vendors' offerings were relatively similar. Now, buyers must be able to navigate not only logical journaling and clustering, but newer, more exotic approaches, like switched disk, cross-site mirroring (XSM), and hardware-based replication. Vision Solutions, the only remaining HA heavyweight ISV, will be looking to clarify customer choice in 2008, and in some cases will advocate a hybrid approach that blends these IBM technologies with its own.

For the last few years, most of the growth in the high availability software marketplace has been in selling relatively affordable HA solutions to small and mid size businesses. The biggest i5/OS shops that stood to lose millions of dollars to downtime had already invested in HA systems, the thinking went. As a result, much of the product development and marketing dollars went to making existing HA products easy enough to be used by SMBs that didn't have an army of personnel to run them. This is largely the market dynamic that resulted in the huge success of iTera, which merged with Vision Solutions in November 2006.

But now, with the advent of technologies like XSM, switched disk, and hardware-based replication, there is suddenly a cornucopia of options when it comes to HA solutions for the System i platform, particularly among high-end customers more willing to try bleeding-edge approaches. While Thoma Cressey Bravo--the venture capital firm that bought and merged Vision Solutions, iTera, and Lakeview Technologies over a course of nine months in late 2006 and early 2007--has made the process of choosing an HA vendor a lot easier for i5/OS shops, it now must confront the potentially confusing array of technology choices facing Vision's customers.

"I think the complexity level there has come way, way down," says Bill Hammond, director of product marketing for Vision and formerly of Lakeview. "But if you want to monitor or measure the complexity based on how many solutions or options there are, yeah, that number is increasing, which makes choosing sometimes difficult."

Vision wants customers to know it supports the new technologies in hybrid HA setups, says Craig Johnson, vice president of research and development for Vision Solutions. "There are more options today than there have been in the past and that's part of what we're trying to do with clarifying the messaging," he says. "We're blending IBM technology with our solutions to deliver more powerful, hybrid-types of solutions."

XSM is one of the most promising new HA technologies. XSM, which is a form of clustering that IBM introduced with OS/400 V5R3, works by mirroring data and objects residing in an independent Auxiliary Storage Pool (iASP) running on internal disks to a second iASP running on the internal disks of a remote machine. In this regard, XSM works similarly to switched disk, which has been available on the platform for several years. However, XSM carries the advantage over switched disk in that the servers don't have to be on the same HSL, which switched disk requires, thereby enabling the backup server to be located offsite.

While XSM supports internal disk, IBM offers several hardware-based HA technologies for external disk. Some System i shops have started taking advantage of System i Copy Services toolkit, which allows them to use technologies like GlobalMirror, MetroMirror, and FlashCopy to replicate the contents of iASPs running on external disks, namely the TotalStorage DS8000 line of high-end storage area networks (SANs).

Then there is i5/OS clustering services, an optional add-on that has been available for the last decade. Clustering brings a greater level of automation to some of the replication, monitoring, and failover tasks that were previously handled manually by logical replication products, such as Vision's Orion, iTera HA, and MIMIX.

IBM had high hopes for clustering in the early part of the decade, but lackluster customer adoption made application vendors hesitant to cluster-enable their products, which was necessary to get the most benefits out of clustering. However, there's growing evidence that clustering is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, even without the large stable of cluster-enabled applications IBM had once envisioned.

One i5/OS shop that has recently adopted clustering is Prescription Solutions, a Costa Mesa, California, company that handles the prescription drug benefits for commercial, Medicare, and governmental health plans.

For the last three years, Prescription Solutions has been running Lakeview Technologies' MIMIX to replicate data between its main data center in Carlsbad, California, and backup facilities in Costa Mesa and Overland Park, Kansas. The software (the remote journaling-based version of MIMIX) worked well enough for the company, which performed regular role swaps every two months for training, backup, and maintenance purposes.

The only issue Prescription Solutions' IT department had with the MIMIX ha1 software is that it thought switchovers could be faster, according to Reid Parker, a senior systems analyst with the company. So in 2007, the company added Lakeview's MIMIMX cluster1 software to the existing three-node setup.

As a result, it now takes 15 minutes to switch between the company's various System i 570s, instead of the 30 minutes it previously took. "It does more things automatically behind the scenes, and with a more automated failover," Parker says. "And the heartbeat monitoring helps us a lot to let us know the machines are up and running."

This is the type of customer story that Vision hopes to be hearing more of in the future. i5/OS clustering services will be the basis for future hybrid HA approaches, along with switched disk, XSM, and GlobalMirror. Each of these will be supported with existing installations of iTera HA, Orion, and MIMIX, and new hybrid options will be available with i5/OS V6R1, Johnson says.

"IBM and Vision Solutions are working collaboratively to combine the strengths of IBM's cluster services with Vision Solutions' offerings," says Alan Arnold, Vision's executive vice president and chief technology officer. "Our integrated offerings represent the future for System i customers."


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