One headache for information technology professionals is the constant barrage of software upgrades necessary to avoid security threats and improve mission-critical software applications. In the past, these upgrades meant planned downtime and after-hours or weekend work for the IT staff. Worse yet, some upgrades weren’t tested and IT personnel faced the wrath of the user community on Monday morning.
The convergence of two technologies high-availability software and server virtualization software has spawned a solution to this age-old problem. A business can build multiple virtual servers using this new management software, creating production, testing and development copies of its systems. Then, using the high-availability software, the business can copy or clone its production system to the testing copy. The testing version is used to load the upgrades without disrupting the production system, but uses a live copy of the data.
“Here is the best part,” says Martin Sizemore, chief technology officer for Premier Technologies. “When the testing is complete and the upgrade is ready to go live, then the testing virtual copy trades places with the production version, and cutover is complete. In minutes, a tested, ready-to-run, upgraded version of the system goes live without disrupting operations.”
Smart Business spoke with him about these two key technologies and the productivity they offer for business operations.
What does it take for companies to implement virtualization software?
Virtualization software is generally installed on new hardware platforms. However, it can be retrofitted onto many modern operating systems. Virtualization software simply ‘carves up’ one physical server into multiple logical servers. The key requirement is that the disk storage is separate from the server, usually a storage area network (SAN) and that the storage is logically assigned to the server. This approach makes the storage virtual and allows the hardware servers to become virtual.
Companies take the step of virtualization to maximize their investment in hardware servers that are idle a portion of the time and disk storage that is scattered in separate servers. Implementing virtualization software can be done in stages to create the environment for better controlling upgrades.
How does the high-availability software keep the production and testing environments in sync for the cutover?
Once the virtual servers are in place, the high-availability software is used to set up the replication, which is constant copying of the data from the production server to the testing or upgrade server, in real time. The ability to constantly keep two copies of production data running with the applications is the secret to minimizing disruption from the upgrade. This continuous availability allows IT personnel to select the proper moment in time, after testing, to switch the production and testing servers.
After data replication is working, the IT staff can apply the upgrades operating system upgrades, application software upgrades, reporting software; the list is endless. Because this is a controlled environment (but a copy of the live environment), quality assurance testing is more realistic and a gap analysis is more accurate for decision-making.
What are the advantages of this upgrade approach over traditional methods?
Traditional methods must rely on vendors to test the upgrades. However, vendors cannot anticipate the combination of applications running at any given company. As a result, the more operating systems or applications that a company runs, the higher the risk of upgrades simply due to the possible number of untested combinations. The advantage of this approach is the ability to test one or more upgrades in a controlled manner prior to launching the production environment. In addition, the testing is done with real data and real data volumes to uncover problems that smaller unit tests will miss.
With the speed of upgrades increasing, the need for automating and streamlining the upgrade process is becoming critical. The cost of planned or unplanned down-time is dramatically increasing as well, due to increasing dependence on computer systems to operate the business. The simple loss of an e-mail system or downtime due to patches on your order entry system can have employees completely idled and potential losses looming.
Why isn’t this solution more widely used?
This solution of upgrades without disruption needs to be more widely understood by company leadership and move beyond the view of IT’s chase of new technologies. Reliability of information systems cannot be taken for granted, especially as application or operating system vendors scramble to address security needs and stop the next attack.
More importantly, a sensible, repeatable and planned approach is the best insurance of keeping productivity high for your company while maintaining the integrity of mission-critical systems. The key is to begin the adoption cycle of virtualization software and combine it with the insurance of the high-availability software.
MARTIN SIZEMORE is chief technology officer for Premier Technologies. Reach him at email@example.com or (412) 788-8080.