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Architectural firm explains move to cloud-based data storage

Growing through staff adds and acquisition forced a global architectural design firm to examine where and how it stores data files. The answer lay in cloud-based data storage.

Businesses can grow as new employees are hired or through acquisitions of other companies. Nelson, a global architectural design firm based in Philadelphia, had to deal with both. The challenge for the director of technology, Markus Weidner, was to unite wildly different file storage infrastructures, improve performance and eliminate competing file versions. Weidner discussed Nelson's move to cloud-based data storage with SearchCloudApplications.

What did you find when you joined Nelson in late 2013?

Markus Weidner: Nelson had 275 employees and was on its way past 600. We had a central storage model, with an EqualLogic storage area network and using Riverbed for acceleration in each office. People were working in a very siloed environment. I was a little panicked.

How were offices linked, and where did storage physically reside?

All of the offices that Nelson was made up of -- the 275 people before 2014 -- were connected mostly by T1 or bonded T1 lines. All storage was centralized at our headquarters in Philadelphia. A lot of this was mystifying to me, and I couldn't understand how they had survived.

What was the level of user satisfaction?

The common complaint across the board was that file performance was really bad. It required a lot of patience. Anyone working on projects in AutoCAD, or Adobe products or Microsoft Office with central shares was very dissatisfied and unhappy. These complaints were consistent and long-standing. I had no idea things were in this state of disrepair.

Did company executives understand the performance bottlenecks and the need to assimilate acquisitions?

The acquisitions triggered growth and led to a diversification in the architectural services Nelson provides. The DNA of the company changed and pushed collaboration to the forefront. Listening to the CEO's growth plan for a diversified portfolio of services, in my mind, triggered an urgency to address our infrastructure.

Isn't every acquisition different?

Each acquisition is a surprise that comes tied up in a box, with a bow on top. I open it up, and each time, we have to deal with something completely different. Most are small operations, with either a single IT person or an outside IT consultant.

What did you find in these acquired businesses?

In one case, all of the servers in a location were 12 years old. We realized that we had to get the data off these servers immediately. Others didn't have a good backup strategy, still going to [linear tape open] tapes in a closet in the same building.

What about the situation of people working with different versions of the same file?

People had given up working over the network. They would copy files to their local C drive, work on them, [and] then put them back. The result was version issues. It was unworkable and unacceptable.

What action did you take?

We had to completely re-evaluate and rebuild our wide area network. We were using on-premises Microsoft Exchange, and quickly made the decision to migrate to Office 365.

How big is Nelson's IT department?

We have five people on the help desk team, three handling servers and infrastructure, and three more on our design technology team supporting our industry-specific applications, like AutoCAD. This project was owned by the server team, but I put the onus of validating the functionality on the design technology team.

What service did Nelson implement for moving to cloud-based data storage instead of on-premises centralized storage?

We started with one of our largest groups, marketing, that was doing geographical collaboration. We worked with Panzura to set up cloud-based data storage on Amazon [Simple Storage Service], with a Panzura [Global File System] controller appliance installed in each of our locations. It is a high-performance, globally distributed file system that appears local to users, even though we're using a central cloud data repository that spans all of our locations. We have 19 TB of data out there.

How quickly were you able to move the entire company to cloud-based data storage?

We began cutting purchase orders in April [2014]. By the end of May, we were ready to go with our main project repositories. In June, we pulled the ripcord; at that point, we were running the entire company on Panzura.

There is no reason to wait. Cloud-based data storage is mature, cost-effective and not difficult to implement.
Markus Weidnertechnology director at Nelson

What do users think of cloud-based data storage today?

The best way to characterize it is transparent. No one thinks about it, no one talks about it. The employees don't see or understand the technology. The highest compliment is that no one even knows; they just go to the companywide shared drive, and the files are there. It has completely faded as an issue from company management. This was a blessing, because it means we can focus so much more energy into other projects.

Are you sharing what you learned with other businesses?

I was invited by Panzura to join a customer advisory board. We've been engaged with their product teams, and we are starting to see some of our feedback appear in new product releases. The latest version of the operating system has a cloud dashboard that shows all of our controllers, like the Meraki-style dashboard that gives you vital stats.

What is your advice for other businesses dealing with storage performance issues?

There is no reason to wait. Cloud-based data storage is mature, cost-effective and not difficult to implement. Performance improves, version control is automatic and users are satisfied.

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