USGA hooks into IBM cloud

By Neal Weinberg, Network World |  Storage, IBM

Business resiliency was the main driver for the United States Golf Association when it recently chose the IBM cloud for e-mail and data protection services.

Jessica Carroll, managing director of IT for the nonprofit governing body of golf, says her existing backup and disaster-recovery plans were well designed for business conditions five years ago. But they were no longer adequate for today's world in which companies can't afford to be down for even brief periods of time.

The USGA has close to 70 servers — most based at headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., with some at a backup site 20 miles away, and others in Colorado Springs, Colo. The organization has about 350 employees, roughly 225 at headquarters and the rest scattered at remote offices across the country.

The USGA had traditionally done storage and backup internally, Carroll says. In the event of a total disaster, the USGA would have ordered new equipment from its vendors, set things up in a backup location and retrieved backup tapes that had been stored offsite. In that scenario, it might have taken a week before key data, such as 4 million membership records, would have been available again.

That type of delay might have been acceptable once, but it doesn't make the cut, Carroll says.

She looked for a better option and found a cloud-based business resiliency service from IBM. "IBM's reputation and the services it was offering were enterprise class," Carroll says. "I knew right away this was the way to go. The product was so strong."

Even so, the conservative Carroll did her due diligence. "We were back and forth for almost a year," she says, before the final contract was signed.

The agreement with IBM Information Protection Services has three components. First, there's an IBM-hosted hot site, with servers set aside and ready for the USGA to use in case of a disaster. That service has nothing to do with cloud computing, Carroll points out.

The second service is a cloud-based e-mail continuity service in which IBM automatically syncs up with the USGA's onsite e-mail servers. "If I have a disruption, if a machine is down, at the flip of a switch, we flip over to the Web service," Carroll says.

E-mail is a critical application for the USGA, which generates 150,000 messages a day. "It's really been on my mind," Carroll says. E-mail communication between the USGA and its members is "necessary to run to business."

She adds, "Last summer the phone system went down for a couple of days and nobody blinked an eye. If e-mail is off for 30 seconds, the help desk phones are ringing."

Carroll says testing and implementation of the Outlook e-mail service was completed last fall.

The other cloud service is a nightly backup of 2TB of mission-critical data. She says the USGA had two implementation options — it could have had every server perform a full backup over the WAN to the IBM cloud. That would have taken eight hours every night.

Carroll says she went with the second option. Software agents placed on each server take snapshots of the data. Those snapshots are funneled into a server in the USGA data center, then backed up to the IBM cloud. That option cost a bit more, but Carroll says it was worth the extra expense.

Again, she says testing to make sure the service does what it's advertised to do is critical.

While Carroll doesn't consider herself to be on the bleeding edge, she does have some experience with hosted applications. It's this experience that made her receptive to the concept of cloud computing.

Online training paved the way
The USGA is a nonprofit organization that has served as the governing body of golf since 1894. It monitors the rules of golf and equipment standards, maintains a National Handicap and Course Rating System, and preserves an extensive collection of golf memorabilia at its museum and library. It also conducts 13 major championships, including the U.S Open, U.S. Women's Open, Senior Open, and several junior and amateur tournaments.

The USGA also does training in a variety of subjects related to the rules of the game ("Officiating 101," "Temporary Immovable Objects") and to turf management.

USGA University, as it's called, is hosted by ePath Learning. The USGA provides the content and ePath Learning does the rest, offering people the ability to take these courses at their own pace and convenience.

Because the entire application is hosted at the ePath Learning site, the USGA did not have to spend upfront on infrastructure or employees, Carroll says. About 1,500 people have taken advantage of the online training courses.

Similarly, Carroll uses Microsoft Live Meeting for online training, which has expanded from in-house training to include state and regional golf associations, plus colleges and universities interested in turf management. She also uses Live Meeting in a variety of other ways, including training U.S. Open volunteers.

The good thing about Live Meeting: "It pays you back in terms of not buying servers to make it happen," she says. And, the long-term benefit of using cloud-based services is that "as we grow there is not an economic impact as this is covered" in the cloud services agreement.

Lessons learned
When it comes to cloud computing, Carroll shares these thoughts. The specific cloud computing service has to be right for your organization. She says she does not have the staff resources to allow her to do the kind of disaster recovery, backup and e-mail synchronization that is required. The decision to go with a cloud computing service is "an investment we put in; it's valuable insurance," Carroll says.

She says there are times when going with a cloud provider makes sense, and times when it doesn't. In this case, "It was an easy choice to make."

However, even though IBM has a strong reputation in the marketplace, Carroll took nothing for granted. She recommends that any prospective cloud services customer ask the hard questions.

"You want to know what the hosting environment looks like. What are their disaster-recovery scenarios? How are they going to secure your data? Just because it says they do hosting, that's not enough."

She adds that customers should require language in the contract that spells out how the service provider protects itself. "Are they in an unmarked building? Do they have security at the door? Do they have another offsite facility?"

Carroll says those are the kinds of details that cloud computing customers need to think about before signing a contract. In her case, everything has worked out well. She hasn't had to put the disaster-recovery plan into action, but is confident that in the event of an outage, the USGA will be quickly back in the swing.

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