Staying On Top Of High Availability At HelpSystems
October 21, 2019 Timothy Prickett Morgan
HelpSystems got its start in systems management and automation software and has expanded its solution portfolio over the years to include cybersecurity, business intelligence, document management, robotic process automation, capacity management, and more. More recently, HelpSystems entered the IBM i high availability (HA) arena with their Bug Busters acquisition in 2016. I recently checked in with Tom Huntington, executive vice president of technical solutions at HelpSystems, and Tim Woodfield, director of development, to get an update on the company’s HA offering.
“HelpSystems does a good job of listening to the things our customers like and don’t like about their IBM i systems,” says Huntington. “In fact, that’s why we looked at Bug Busters in the first place. Based on conversations with our customers, we learned that the reasons why they haven’t adopted an HA solution are because it’s too expensive, too time-consuming, or they don’t have the in-house expertise. We wanted to provide them with a quality alternative for achieving HA on IBM i.”
HelpSystems surveys the IBM i community annually. The results consistently show that around 50 percent of organizations do not have HA in place. Other information available in the industry suggests that 85 percent of organizations are less than 100 confident in their HA/DR solution. “We see it more often than you’d think,” says Huntington. “There are some customers who’ve had HA software replicating their databases and applications for a long time and, for whatever reason, they have never been comfortable doing the true test of role swapping to make sure the HA software is actually working. It’s just like with system backups: If you have never restored data from tape, do you really have a good backup? That comes down to education as well as tools that are easier to use.”
After HelpSystems bought Bug Busters, they rebranded its software to Robot HA and have continued to add to its functionality, growing it from an HA tool aimed at small and medium businesses to one that is also suitable for large enterprises. With the latest Robot HA 12.07 release, which was announced three weeks ago, HelpSystems added two key new features.
The first deals with a situation called file refresh. “Sometimes, when something is going wrong on an IBM i system, the HA solution will save the file on production and restore the file to the target machine rather than try to figure out what is going on,” says Woodfield. “If that file is on the order of multiple terabytes, which is typical at a lot of the bigger IBM i shops, then it could take hours or days to restore that file on the target box. Rather than do this, the Robot HA logging feature will now drill down and discover the root causes that are making the system do the refreshes in the first place, so they don’t have to be done at all.”
The second new feature with Robot HA 12.07 is a transition process – which is distinct from a conversion or migration – to help customers move from existing HA tools they might have been using in their IBM i environments to Robot HA. The idea with this transition process is to build off of the settings and setup of that existing HA tool to help the transition to Robot HA, rather than just delete the old software and add in new.
“It’s not cost-effective for organizations to lose the time and effort they’ve invested in their existing HA tool,” says Woodfield. “So, the transition is all about helping them preserve what is working and improve or optimize the configurations that weren’t working. With this feature, Robot HA can get a snapshot of the existing HA setup. Any time that customers have had a solution in place for a while, there are always going to be things that they didn’t know that they were doing or things that they weren’t doing correctly, too, so we want to help identify these as well as part of the transition.” In response to customer requests, HelpSystems is starting with transitions from MIMIX from Syncsort and will add others as customer demands necessitate.
Switching from one HA tool to another, while sometimes necessary, can be stressful. These applications on IBM i are mission critical and high profile, and if something goes wrong, business is lost and people’s jobs are on the line. With this transition feature in Robot HA 12.07, organizations can literally leave their old HA software running and migrate things over library by library, no need to worry about doing a big-bang migration across HA tools. This takes some of the fear out of that migration process because it can be done in small steps, over time.
HelpSystems will be hosting a live webinar on November 5 sharing more information about the new features in Robot HA 12.07.
Outside of their investment in Robot HA, another thing that many IBM i shops may not realize is that HelpSystems has taken over net new development on the PowerHA hardware-based replication software sold by IBM, along with Level 3 technical support for the product as well. What does that mean? It means HelpSystems can provide Robot HA directly and PowerHA through IBM’s channel partners, who are still the ones selling that particular solution.
“There are plenty of times when PowerHA disk-based replication, which works with either internal disks on IBM i platforms or with IBM Storwize disk arrays linked to the IBM i platform using the SAN Volume Controller (SVC) appliance from IBM, working by itself is enough,” says Huntington. “But there are also times when having both Robot HA and PowerHA working in concert makes more sense. For example, sometimes customers use PowerHA to do data replication to a second system, but that machine is unusable when the replication is occurring. But with Robot HA, the data can be passed from the primary to the secondary machine using remote journaling and that data can be available on the target system for running complex queries, business intelligence tools, or dashboards. In other cases, key software like utilities (such as EDI) or security tools or change management systems cannot be replicated using PowerHA, so Robot HA comes in handy here. These days, there are customers who use PowerHA for quick replication within the datacenter for high availability and Robot HA for replication of data and applications to a remote site, which is really a disaster recovery use case.”
Pointing a tool like Robot HA at remote systems is not new, but having IBM i instances available on the public clouds like Skytap, IBM Cloud, and Google Cloud as well as from partners such as Meridian (a longtime HelpSystems partner for disaster recovery) means that customers have an increasing variety of target systems they can use for disaster recover (DR) scenarios. This disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) scenario is distinct from using tools like Robot HA to actually migrate applications from on-premises Power Systems machines running IBM i to IBM i instances running on a public cloud, but Robot HA can certainly be used in this fashion.
“There is nothing, by the way, that would prevent PowerHA from being used on premises on a source machine and in the cloud on a target machine, either,” adds Huntington. “It is really just a matter of testing. In any event, Robot HA and PowerHA can be used as a means of migrating applications to the cloud and even moving them back if customers are not happy with their cloud provider.”
Even customers who are thinking about using the new Db2 Mirror feature of IBM i 7.4 to do local replication of databases in the datacenter ought to be thinking about how they might also use Robot HA and, of course, they have to use PowerHA to do disk-based replication for Db2 Mirror to work. Db2 Mirror can have a much lower recovery time after a system failure – seconds instead of minutes with hardware or software replication such as with PowerHA or Robot HA, respectively. But there are things that Db2 Mirror will not replicate, so for complete HA and DR coverage, something like Robot HA or PowerHA are necessary. Robot HA or PowerHA can also be used to replicate data out of the datacenter to a DR site while Db2 Mirror handles the HA side of things.
“The great news is that today’s HA/DR customer has options,” says Huntington. “And HelpSystems can help find the right solution for your team.”
This content is sponsored by HelpSystems.