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SunGard taps server virtualization to speed disaster recovery

Disaster recovery service provider SunGard is turning to server virtualization and VMware to speed time to recovery for its customers.

SunGard, the Wayne, Pa.-based disaster recovery services giant, is bringing server virtualization into its operations to reduce recovery times for customers and to streamline its backup hardware provisioning process.

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In a recent interview, Don Norbeck, SunGard availability services, director of product development, said the company would begin rolling out virtualized disaster recovery offerings in the next 18 months.

Speeding time to recovery

According to Norbeck, the traditional 48 hour recovery objective -- transporting tapes to the SunGard facility and restoring systems to infrastructure stored there -- is no longer acceptable for most customers. The company's most recent study found 12 hours was customers' current goal for bringing systems back on line.

But according to Norbeck, the recovery objective with virtualized infrastructure would be less than four hours.

"We're lucky this really applies to our DNA," Norbeck said. "If you look at the core of what we do, it's really the process for rapid provisioning. A company says 'We need infrastructure now,' and we come up with the infrastructure for the customer to use."

The speed boost comes from not having to rebuild the server, application and operating system all separately. Under the new model, SunGard will monitor the customer's IT operations, replicate them to its facility and take snapshots of the infrastructure in virtual severs.

Windows servers like being restored on the same physical hardware, but a virtual server doesn't know the difference. In the case of a failure, SunGard reboots the virtual server image, and it will come back online with all of its patches and updates already applied.

Not only does this speed time to recovery, it also makes disaster recovery testing a much simpler process. "If we already have the image of your network, server and storage requirements, it can be turned up and turned off rapidly," Norbeck said.

SunGard streamlines its hardware

In addition to improving the disaster recovery window, SunGard is also planning to streamline the hardware it hosts. In the past, if a customer needed to back up an Exchange server, SunGard had to have that same Exchange server running in a facility somewhere. Not so with virtualization.

Instead of hosting a one-to-one replica of its customers server configurations, SunGard will begin hosting shared pools of hardware, replicating customers' server schemas on a virtual level.

Charles King, principal analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research said that this can save SunGard a significant amount of money. "SunGard could build a disaster recovery infrastructure that would be more efficient and possibly less expensive to maintain."

Raghu Raghuram, vice president of data center and desktop platforms at VMware, said SunGard will get multiple benefits by going virtual. "Using less hardware, the operating costs are lower; also overall infrastructure becomes higher availability. It is possible to offer your customers a much higher service level agreement."

Norbeck agreed that the move can save money for SunGard and its customers. But he warned that the processes are still going need the same amount of staff to do the work, and that is where a large part of the cost lies.

While all this talk of pooled resources is nice, the question remains: Will customers be willing to share?

According to Raghuram, there is no reason not to. "Everybody gets their own contained environment. Five years ago I'd say it was an issue, but not today." He also pointed to a study that the National Security Agency conducted on the isolation of virtual machines, and the agency found that they performed well enough for isolating classified information.

It needs to be mentioned that this is not an exclusive arrangement between VMware and SunGard. Norbeck said SunGard is working with VMware, Xen and Microsoft. "We are looking to develop the infrastructure as broad as we can be without making an exclusive selection of one of them," Norbeck said. "Our customers and prospects are leaning toward VMware as being the primary vendor."

The rollout of virtualized disaster recovery services

SunGard isn't pioneering the use of virtualization in the disaster recovery business. Tom Dugan, chief technology officer of backup services provider Recovery Networks Inc., has been using virtualization for disaster recovery services for years.

The Philadelphia-based company has been around for two and a half years, and Dugan said it made the jump to virtual machines very early in its existence.

"It helped accelerate our capabilities," Dugan said. "If a customer had 20 servers they were protecting, we had to have 20 on our side. Those servers aren't doing anything. It's a literal waste of hardware. Virtualization gave us the ability to minimize the number of servers we had. It keeps our costs down, keeps clients costs down."

In addition to the savings, it also gives Dugan the ability to restore customers' servers to dissimilar hardware. "We have yet to see it fail where we back up a Windows server and restore it as a virtual machine."

Dugan said it would be absurd for SunGard not to move to virtual servers.

Let us know what you think about the article; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor.

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