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Firm's growth drives need for cloud storage management

To speed file access and solve its version control problems, a global architectural design firm implemented a distributed, shared cloud storage management system.

As businesses add new locations spurred either by internal growth or acquisition, the need for cloud storage management to share files efficiently and control versions becomes increasingly acute.

This is especially true for collaborative projects involving geographically dispersed workers. Isolated data lakes, whether stored at each branch location or at a central on-premises repository, can hinder performance and lead to data loss as users save work to competing file versions, overwriting others' changes.

This was the situation at the global architectural design firm Nelson. When Markus Weidner came on board in late 2013 as director of technology, he discovered 275 employees working in a siloed environment that consisted of an EqualLogic storage area network (SAN) located at the firm's Philadelphia headquarters, bolstered by technology from Riverbed for acceleration installed at each remote office. With an acquisition spree underway that would send employee headcount soaring past 600, already slow performance sunk further, exacerbating the need for a cloud storage management platform. Applications in wide use at the firm included AutoCAD from Autodesk, Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator and Microsoft Office.

Increasingly impatient employees began to download files to their local desktop drives, work with them and then upload the revised versions, sometimes overwriting the work of colleagues who had adopted similar tactics. "There were red flags based on the president's growth plans and what I was observing as our baseline infrastructure," Weidner said. "I was a little panicked." That is when cloud storage management came to the rescue.

Migrate data to the cloud

To improve performance, Weidner looked to the obvious approach, retiring the firm's on-premises SAN and moving all data into the cloud. That strategy echoes a clear trend: According to researcher Clutch's 2016 Enterprise Cloud Computing Survey, fully 70% of enterprises now use cloud infrastructure primarily for file storage, encompassing both data and applications. Following file storage in cloud usage are backup and disaster recovery, application deployment, and application development and testing, according to the survey, which was conducted in Dec. 2015.

Every acquisition is a surprise that forces us to deal with something completely different.
Markus Weidnerdirector of technology, Nelson

Moving to the cloud proved a wise choice because acquisitions kept coming, each different from the one before. "Every acquisition is a surprise that forces us to deal with something completely different," Weidner said. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that many of the small design firms Nelson acquires are staffed with a solitary do-it-all IT person who lacks cloud storage expertise.

The acquired design firms that had turned their IT needs over to an outside consultant were somewhat better off. In one case, all the servers at one firm were 12 years old, prompting Weidner's team to perform what amounted to an emergency data migration. Some firms lacked a comprehensive backup strategy while others backed up to on-premises Linear Tape-Open (LTO) tapes that provided no fallback if a disaster struck the building.

To Nik Rouda, a senior analyst at researcher Enterprise Strategy Group, the sorry state of cloud storage management comes as no surprise, especially at smaller businesses. "Less spending equates to less management, less security and lower performance," he said. "To improve the management and security of data and to maximize file performance, businesses need to increase spending." Many are unwilling or unable to boost spending, while others are unaware of the problem's scope, he said.

One global shared drive

In its quest to solve its storage performance woes, improve user satisfaction and regain version control, Weidner's small IT team conducted a vendor evaluation. Ultimately, Nelson dumped its SAN and moved to a cloud-based storage model with data residing on Amazon S3 fronted by the Global File System from Panzura. A Panzura GFS controller, sized to match expected traffic volumes is installed in each office. The environment is configured as one shared drive that is mapped for everyone in the far-flung organization. "The expectation is that they will work in that drive and have the same performance just as if it was a local server down the hall," Weidner said. A key factor that disqualified other vendors was their inability to provide global file and element locking, necessary to maintain version control.

To simplify collaboration on business documents and presentations, the firm veered away from traditional Microsoft Office, opting instead for the shared subscription-based software as a service (SaaS) Office 365 product instead.

Validated implementation

Nelson does little in the way of developing software and is therefore able to maintain a small IT organization consisting of five help-desk staffers, a server and infrastructure team with three staffers, and three others who oversee Nelson's design technology applications. The cloud storage management project was owned by the infrastructure team, which coordinated installation and integration with the firm's longstanding Active Directory implementation. "I put the onus of validating the platform, from a functionality perspective, on our design technology team," Weidner said.

In the end, the highest compliment is that employees are not aware that files are stored on Amazon S3 cloud servers with file system services provided by Panzura. "It is completely transparent," Weidner said. "No one knows it's there or understands it. All they know is that they go to the U: drive and their files are there."

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