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Insurer accelerates DevOps test data refreshes with Actifio

Data-intensive applications can hobble DevOps velocity, but one IT team makes fresh test data available to its developers with a tool that makes rapid copies of large data stores.

Large enterprises lug data-heavy legacy apps with them to DevOps. To keep rapid development on track, teams must take fresh approaches to IT operations at the deepest levels of infrastructure.

For ActiveHealth Management Inc., a New-York-based subsidiary of Aetna International, a large health insurer in Hartford, Conn., that problematic app was a 150 TB Oracle database deployed on a six-node Oracle Real Application Cluster, to produce analytics reports on member data. The amount of data on such a complex server infrastructure presented a major obstacle to the company's planned implementation of a continuous DevOps test process in early 2017. A manual refresh of database test data through a traditional backup copy of the cluster would require an estimated minimum of 350 hours of work, over 30 days.

"Our QA team wanted live real-time data in our lower test/dev environments," said Conrad Meneide, then the vice president of infrastructure at ActiveHealth, now executive director of affiliate infrastructure services at Aetna. "But a 150 terabyte production database takes an insurmountable amount of time to copy, and importing a full copy of that data to a test environment would require a costly storage footprint."

Even if ActiveHealth could spare the disk space and time to generate DevOps test data, the performance requirements for the production database cluster prohibited such a backup during business hours.

Actifio CDS UI
Actifio CDS UI shows DevOps test copy process

DevOps test data copy bake-off favored Actifio

Parent company Aetna already had a relationship with a DevOps test data management vendor, but the ActiveHealth team wasn't convinced that product could make on-demand clones of its large, performance-sensitive database. The team conducted a five-week bake-off in early 2017 between that incumbent tool and a product called Copy Data Storage (CDS) from Actifio Inc.

"The incumbent product produced some improvement over the manual process, but Actifio gave us five times the performance gain of that competitor's product," Meneide said. He declined to name the incumbent vendor, as its software remains in use at Aetna.

Our QA team wanted live real-time data in our lower test/dev environments.
Conrad Meneideexecutive director of affiliate infrastructure services, Aetna

Competitors to Actifio in copy data management include Catalogic Software, Cohesity Inc., Commvault Systems Inc., Delphix Corp. and Rubrik Inc. These vendors are able to make fast copies of data stores with a small footprint. Another set of vendors specializes in test data management, which generates test reports and includes data masking and encryption features out of the box in addition to fast-copy mechanisms. Test data management vendors include CA, Delphix, HP and Informatica.

Meneide attributed the difference between Actifio and the incumbent vendor his team evaluated to the products' architectures. The incumbent product was installed on a VM and addressed back-end storage through the company's IP network via the Network File System (NFS) protocol, while Actifio CDS was packaged with Fibre Channel storage area network hardware on an appliance.

"This meant we didn't have to reinvest in a faster Ethernet network for NFS, or worry about security concerns around NFS over the main network," Meneide said.

DevOps test performance removes release roadblocks

Actifio CDS integrates with ActiveHealth's Jenkins CI/CD pipeline through a RESTful API, and developers generate clones of the data for DevOps tests on-demand through the Jenkins interface. The API meant ActiveHealth could also connect a homegrown data masking and encryption utility, while the incumbent vendor's software would have required a separately licensed encryption engine.

With on-demand DevOps test data, ActiveHealth established a continuous integration and delivery workflow in its dev/test environments, which resulted in releases to production every two weeks.

"This was possible before Actifio, but not with fresh test data -- everything almost had to stop for a data refresh, and data refresh requests came in ad hoc," Meneide said.

Actifio clones the database data using pointers to a deduplicated golden image, which means the DevOps test data environment also takes up only a fraction -- some 20% to 30% -- of the storage space compared to the production environment.

In his new position as an executive director at Aetna, Meneide said he will evaluate wider use of Actifio CDS in other subsidiaries at the company, such as its Medicaid claims business, as well as with other database types, such as Microsoft SQL Server. As the insurer moves some workloads to public cloud service providers, it will explore whether Actifio CDS can help quickly clone data to send with apps into those new environments.

However, as in any large enterprise, a number of DevOps and IT initiatives compete for attention and a share of the budget. At Aetna, a broader Actifio rollout must compete with an IT to-do list that includes a DevSecOps transformation, and the adoption of containers and Kubernetes container orchestration in the company's private cloud.

"We're still exploring and understanding the use cases, and where compliance dictates we retain systems of record," Meneide said. "Actifio also has potential uses for disaster recovery for us."

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