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Virtual machine replication simplifies healthcare firm's DR

Because disaster recovery planning and testing were too complicated, a health provider turned to Zerto virtual replication to speed up the process without increasing costs.

When Ken Rogoza moved into his job as disaster recovery infrastructure architect at Independent Health Association, he decided he needed to make his firm's DR setup simpler.

Switching from SAN-based replication services to virtual machine replication with Zerto helped him enact that plan.

Rogoza had already spent 20 years at Independent Health when he took charge of its DR in September 2016. He had previously worked on networking, storage and enterprise systems, applications and middleware, so he knew the company well. He realized there were many moving pieces to its DR planning and testing.

On the personnel side, all of the IT groups inside the company and partners Independent Health worked with closely needed to take part. On the technology side, the active-active nature of its data centers made testing difficult because of the potential impact on production applications.

"I was looking at how to mature our DR capability to make it less complex," Rogoza said. "We were involving thousands of hours of people's time in IT to plan for a DR weekend. I said, 'I can do better than that.'

Ken Rogoza, DR infrastructure architect, Independent HealthKen Rogoza

"We pride ourselves on being a nationally recognized leader in providing low-cost health solutions. Our mission is to deliver high-quality care and keep costs in line. When we looked at how our IT department has evolved, we have a lot of providers that outsource services within the IT world. The technologies have become complex, and everything we do to support our business initiatives [has] been complex."

Independent Health turned to Zerto's IT Resilience Platform to enable continuous virtual machine replication instead of the storage-based replication it used previously. Rogoza said the move enabled the company to simplify its DR testing without affecting performance.

Virtual machine replication provides continuous protection

Health insurance payer Independent Health is based in Williamsville, N.Y., about 12 miles outside of Buffalo. Rogoza said natural disasters aren't his primary concern in that area, but he needs to protect against hardware outages that take applications down and cyberattacks . The firm uses two data centers in an active-active setup for redundancy, and about 95% of its servers are virtualized.

Rogoza said he studied Independent Health's DR plan for six months and decided it was too complicated to coordinate.

"We were spending a lot of time planning an annual DR test," he said. "It was difficult to coordinate all the teams within IT that needed to be involved in a DR exercise. Just to schedule times when they're available, to have them document everything, just to participate was quite a chore."

Independent Health's two data centers in the same geographic region are connected by a stretched Layer 2 network in an active-active setup. Backups go to a third facility in Pittsburgh. DR required recovering from SAN snapshots at the secondary site.

To test that setup, Independent Health needed to pull in its storage experts, virtual machine (VM) experts, and applications and systems owners. The storage team needed to make capacity available for the VM teams, who then had to reconfigure VMs to the new storage.

DR testing also affected other teams.

"You can't test the recovery of the production system when you're active-active in two data centers," he said. "We had to use other environments. We would have to take over our [user acceptance testing] or [quality assurance] nonproduction and use that for recovery purposes, do our testing and then give it back to QA. That's why it was hard to find time for DR testing. Everybody's busy. It's hard to do DR testing in that world."

Independent Health uses Zerto's continuous data protection virtual machine replication to migrate all production workloads to one data center and then replicate that to its secondary facility. From there, it can move data to a third site or a public cloud. The firm licenses Zerto's Enterprise edition that allows many-to-one replication, so it can also use DR-as-a-service  providers and colocation sites outside of its geographic location.

"Now, we're doing cross-replication. Anything that's production will run in one facility and replicates to storage in our secondary facility," Rogoza said. "We'll be able to fail over with ease, and we've done that a number of times."

DR testing made simpler

Who needs high availability if you can replicate within seconds? That certainly changed the way I think about my application architecture.
Ken RogozaDR infrastructure architect, Independent Health Associates

Rogoza said his team recently ran a successful DR test for significant financial applications. The healthcare firm failed over the applications from one site to the other and significantly reduced recovery time from the previous setup. He said Independent Health migrated more than 30 virtual machines -- including some with terabytes of data -- and recovered in less than five minutes.

"We simplified it to a couple of short meetings, coordinating with the people who do testing and validation," Rogoza said. "It became a simple exercise in terms of planning and coordinating. Before we switched to Zerto, we would have to involve storage teams and VMware teams, and it took hours to do that same recovery. We've eliminated the overhead of needing specialized resources. We got our users up and tested quickly. They validated the applications, and we were able to fail back with no data loss. It doesn't get much better than that."

Zerto's hypervisor-based virtual machine replication means Independent Health does not need identical storage in its two sites. Rogoza said he is exploring adding all-flash storage for high-performance applications and moving other data to low-cost disk.

With Zerto planning to add backup capabilities in Zerto 7, due in 2019, he is also considering replacing dedicated backup software. Zerto's Elastic Journal feature will provide continuous recovery points across data, files or virtual machines. 

"We can do backups from inside Zerto in Zerto 7," Rogoza said. "We can recover from any point in time, ranging from a few seconds to seven years ago, all through the same interface and having that track through a single console. It would be foolish not to consider it."

Rogoza said his new virtual machine replication setup has him rethinking the whole concept of high availability.

"In the past, we would essentially have two data centers for redundancy and high availability," he said. "We would have application servers running at both locations. If one failed, the other one would be able to pick up the workload. But if you can recover a system within seconds, do you need that level of redundancy?

"Who needs high availability if you can replicate within seconds? That certainly changed the way I think about my application architecture."

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