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Bull modernizes SAN environment of pension provider Mn Services



Mn Services in Rijswijk offers a broad service portfolio of pension provision, insurance, employee schemes and asset management. With a staff of over 750, the organization administers the pensions of more than a million Dutch customers. The company also manages €56 billion of capital. With data at the heart of its operation, Mn Services focuses strongly on keeping its IT and storage environments up-to-date. Towards the end of 2008, the company faced having to replace and expand its existing Storage Area Network (SAN) environment. They decided to look beyond just introducing the latest technological developments. Capacity expansion was another major issue to meet planned business growth. After a tendering process, Bull was singled out as the service provider best positioned to design and implement a stable and scalable SAN environment quickly. This would also lay the foundation for setting up a HA cluster in the future.

Mn Services’ strategy envisages an average five-year lifecycle for key IT environments. There are several reasons for this, according to IT Manager for Infrastructure and Facilities Ronald van Bebber: “Since IT is so strategically important to our core activities, we believe the usual seven-year write-off is too long. Our economical and technical write-off cycle spans four to five years. We regard ourselves as a ‘fast follower’, and although we are not entirely at the forefront, we are interested in applying the advantages of technical developments and innovations to our environments rapidly. An additional advantage of this approach is that we receive substantially more features, performance and capacity for the same investment thanks to current price developments.”

The SAN environment for the redundantly-configured computing centre – comprising a site in Rijswijk and a disaster recovery centre in Amsterdam – had reached the end of its lifecycle by 2008. According to Ronald Van Bebber: “There were various arguments for replacing the SAN. First, the amount of data we use and manage continues to grow. Particularly because we will be handling pensions for the Metalelektra (PME) Pension Fund and Enterprise Pension Fund for the Koopvaardij from 1 January 2010. This means doubling our customer base. This growth places enormous demands on our IT processes and the reliability of our storage environment. There is also the impact on performance and aspects such as the time required for backups. We believe we can handle this situation better with a SAN based on the latest technology, enabling quicker and smarter data storage.”

High availability
Another important reason for choosing the new SAN was to be more future-oriented. “We always try to look ahead, and we saw clear organizational benefits in setting up a HA cluster,” explains Ronald Van Bebber. “The Rijswijk site is currently our primary production environment. We use the disaster recovery site exclusively for disaster recovery, development and testing. In these cases we have to transfer all systems, involving a lot of time and effort. In other words, this really is a tough remedy. We expect that using synchronization and load balancing will enable us to have a production set-up running within an HA environment. This will allow us to make optimum use of both environments and to increase flexibility. Should there be a disaster, we will be able to transfer specific processes more quickly and can minimize the impact on our business continuity. In selecting a new SAN, we wanted to factor in this development.”

Systems integrator
Mn Services’ wishes and requirements formed the starting point for an exhaustive selection process. Here the company made no demands about a particular supplier or technology. Mn Services´ regular provider Bull joined SAN suppliers in responding to the tender. As Ronald Van Bebber recalls: “With its proposal, Bull demonstrated that it was more than just a supplier, and that it was perfectly capable of taking on the role of systems integrator. It was also an advantage that Bull’s people know our organization, our working approach and objectives. It’s nice to work with someone able to leverage this knowledge to team up with other suppliers to provide advice on the best solution. Another Bull advantage was that it had been actively involved in setting up our UNIX environment with virtual servers. Server virtualization, for instance, means that we will be able to aggregate server capacity relatively simply in the future HA environment.”

Time pressure
Bull proposed a SAN based on two NetApp FAS 6080 Metroclusters and two FAS 3140 systems for backup and archiving. This solution matched Mn Services’ requirements closely on the technological, functional and investment levels. Bull also managed to win over Mn Services to its approach to implementing and matching service provision. “Implementation was under huge time pressure,” continues Ronald Van Bebber. “The contracts with our previous SAN supplier were about to expire on 1 July 2009, imposing a rock-solid deadline. The selection cycle had also run into some delays, which meant that barely two months were available for the eventual implementation. Bull saw this as a challenge which it actually took up, even providing a guarantee. And they have delivered on their promises.” The project team comprised Bull experts and Mn Services specialists. “That said, we continue to manage the SAN ourselves. Our data lies at the heart of our services, and we want to retain maximum control over it. The advantage of selecting this SAN is that the knowledge required for managing it is no longer in the hands of a small group of specialists. We are now able to distribute this knowledge across various teams in our organization, including those specializing in UNIX, Windows and networks,” explains Ronald Van Bebber.

The SAN implementation completes the first phase of a Bull and Mn Services joint project. The benefits are already clear. “Our storage processes have been accelerated, while the backup window has been reduced. We’ve implemented smart techniques that only backup modified data. This approach results in more efficient storage and shorter lead times. These are important wins, particularly given the doubling of our business activities awaiting us as of 1 January 2010.” Bull will also help Mn Services to flesh out the subsequent phases. As Ronald Van Bebber sums up: “We are talking about using snapshot features as well as enabling our IT environment for clustering. We have now created a solid and scalable foundation for this. Naturally we will have to modify a number of other components further, such as applications, hardware and middleware. In view of our positive experiences, the chances are that we will call on Bull’s help again where it is needed. Their specialists have ample experience in setting up and optimizing HA environments. And now they know our organization, company culture and services through and through.”