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Server virtualization leads to new disaster recovery system for bank

At Sun National Bank, a server virtualization project enabled a home-grown disaster recovery system and a bigger bang for the buck.

Like many other midmarket businesses, Sun National Bank's technology infrastructure has grown like the would-be vines of Vineland, N.J., where the bank is based. Three years ago, that sprawling infrastructure threatened to undermine the bank's 24-hour disaster recovery time limit for servers, according to CIO Angelo Valletta.

With more than 100 servers at headquarters, thin terminals in 70 branch locations and a partnership with a disaster recovery system provider, the bank's typical response time was in the 16- to 20-hour range -- dangerously close to the 24-hour mark. "We did not want customers to wait 24 hours in the event of a disaster," Valletta said. "We knew that was a vulnerability."

At the same time, Sun National wanted to reduce costs while increasing availability of its services. Valletta and other executives came up with a plan to virtualize the servers and pull the disaster recovery system in-house using depreciated equipment. "We implemented blade servers and virtualization to achieve a 10-to-1 ratio," Valletta said. For every eight to 10 servers, the bank now has one virtualized server, and is getting more bang for the buck out of the displaced servers in creative ways.

Some of the extra servers are used by the development group in a "true production-like test environment," Valletta said, or to do quality assurance testing. Many of the boxes were relocated to a branch office that coincidentally was a previous regional data center. Sun National upgraded the branch office to provide appropriate backup power and heating, ventilating and air conditioning. "Talking about ROI," Valletta said, "We've been able to remove our [external] DR and have a truly mirrored environment, eliminate our monthly expenses [to the external DR provider] and update the infrastructure to accommodate disaster recovery, while increasing service to our customers."

The bank still operates the backup location as a full-service branch; the central IT department uses remote software tools to manage the lights-out disaster recovery system, working with Sun National's facilities department when "hands and eyes" are needed, he said. In addition, the bank has partnered with value-added resellers (VARs) so that, if necessary, someone can resolve a problem immediately. In two years, Valletta said, VARs have gone there twice, both times to swap out faulty equipment.

Sun became mostly virtualized about 18 months ago, a goal for a quarter of midmarket firms, according to James Browning, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. A survey conducted in March by Browning of 80 midsized companies found that the organizations had 20 to 40 servers on average. For companies like Sun National, with 100 servers in a contracting economy, virtualization is a natural fit because of the cost savings and opportunities to rearchitect services, according to experts.

A lesson learned about server virtualization

Sun National's server virtualization project was scheduled to take six to eight months, but wound up taking eight to 12. Replicating Sun's storage area network (SAN) to the disaster recovery site was a challenge because the bank left its

We've been able to remove [external] DR and have a truly mirrored environment, eliminate our monthly expenses and update the infrastructure to accommodate disaster recovery.

Angelo Valletta
CIOSun National Bank

disaster recovery provider at the same time. "The reason we were delayed was that we had to increase our bandwidth," to tune it between the two environments and make sure the daily mirroring went smoothly, Valletta said. "We needed to plan for that additional bandwidth to increase capacity and accommodate the data flow."

Sun National Bank already had experience with a form of virtual desktops, what Valletta calls "thin terminals," having installed a Citrix server to feed the devices at 70 branch offices in 2003. "When you talk about the virtual desktop -- I am indifferent to what you call it -- it's allowed the bank to get an ROI that's out of this world for seven years," he said. Latency, the virtual desktop pain point, isn't an issue, he said, because the only information travelling on the communication pipes are screen scrapes.

Many of the thin terminals have continued operating into a fifth year, increasing Sun's ROI. A typical PC needs to be swapped out every three or four years and has a power supply, hard drive and memory to maintain. The thin-terminal environment is not only less expensive but also easier to maintain. Sun's IT staff leaves a full terminal setup in every branch, so if there's a problem with a monitor, for example, the branch personnel can just take the monitor from the shelf setup, ship the faulty one back to headquarters and the IT staff returns a new one for the setup at the branch location. It's disaster recovery on a small but practical scale.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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