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Insurance company uses Cohesity backup to wean off tape

Illinois Mutual wanted to switch from tape backup to something cloud-based. It needed a vendor that integrated with Hyper-V but could also support tape during the transition.

Change is hard, especially when it comes to moving from legacy backup to modern methods.

Insurance company Illinois Mutual, based in Peoria, Ill., adopted cloud-based Cohesity backup and has been transitioning off its old, tape-based system. The switch seemed like it should've been an easy decision, but Shawn Gifford, senior infrastructure administrator and infrastructure team lead at Illinois Mutual, said the company was resistant to change when he joined four years ago.

"When I came to the company, the cloud was regarded as somewhat of a bad word," Gifford said. He was hired to change that culture.

Gifford had experience in cloud consulting, and he had seen his share of failed cloud endeavors before his time at Illinois Mutual. He said the key to both avoiding failure and convincing people to buy in is a detailed cost-benefit analysis.

Gifford calculated a lower total cost of ownership and other cost savings with Cohesity backup, but also went beyond raw financials.

He helped build his case by emphasizing it would reduce the time staff would have to spend working with backups, as well as lower backup and restore times. Other selling points were that Cohesity put deduplication and encryption in the same layer, and consolidates hardware and software.

Headshot of Shawn GiffordShawn Gifford

Illinois Mutual has a staff of around 200 at its Peoria headquarters and about 60 sales representatives working remotely. Its main data center is in Peoria, but the company also replicates to a colocation site in Bloomington, Ill. In total, the company is protecting 130 TB of data. Much of that data is important insurance information with a retention period of 25 years.

Gifford said the toughest part of modernizing Illinois Mutual's backup wasn't finding a vendor with the right technology or working out a cost strategy. For him, the biggest challenge was cutting through a company culture that was set in its ways. Much of IT was used to maintaining status quo rather than examining what processes could be improved.

"Instead of a swear jar, we have a, 'That's the way it's always been' jar," Gifford said, on the company's resistance to change.

Instead of a swear jar, we have a, 'That's the way it's always been' jar.
Shawn GiffordSenior infrastructure administrator and infrastructure team lead, Illinois Mutual

Illinois Mutual adopted Cohesity backup in October 2018 following a 60-day proof of concept. Gifford said he spends about half as much time as he used to on backup administration since the switch, and called the period before Cohesity, "painful years." Not only did backup processes take longer with tape, but he estimated a full restore in case of a major outage could take as long as a month.

To illustrate how much of an improvement the new backup system is, Gifford told the story of a mishap during a backup restoration test. During this test, a new database administrator made an error and sent backup jobs to a remote location. Even though the system was restoring from that remote site instead of local, the test took less than 30 minutes, far less than Gifford said it would've taken with the previous setup.

When shopping for a new backup vendor to replace its Commvault and NetApp combination, Illinois Mutual also looked at Rubrik and Veeam. Gifford needed a product that could support tape while he transitioned off it.

"We were so entrenched in tape. We couldn't just switch data protection and roll off tape immediately," Gifford said.

Illinois Mutual is also entrenched in Microsoft products, using its Hyper-V hypervisor over VMware. This created an additional challenge for Gifford. He ultimately chose Cohesity backup because he found few vendors supported both Hyper-V and tape.

The insurance company's Microsoft investment continues to grow, as it is currently in the middle of migrating from Skype for Business to Microsoft Teams. Gifford said Cohesity's Office 365 backup capabilities were also selling points for him, and he's looking forward to the vendor providing Teams support in the future.

Gifford said Illinois Mutual has always had a deep partnership with Microsoft and its products, then immediately noted he owed money to the jar. But at this point, the company is so invested in Hyper-V and other Microsoft products that there wasn't a good reason to switch out. Going through a single vendor for multiple IT needs just makes more sense.

"Not all their products are perfect, of course, but we're not decreasing our [Microsoft] footprint," Gifford said.

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