Simplifying file storage and network complexity

January 2014 » Features » BUSINESS CASE STUDY
Ability to access project data files quickly allows distributed teams to work as if they are local.
Ranajit Nevatia

Geographically distributed design and development teams are widespread in all architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms to facilitate proper matching of the talent pool with growing project demands. However, challenges associated with providing seamless access to CAD project data across dispersed teams often create excessive amounts of infrastructure and management complexity with sub-optimal results or productivity loss.

Objective
Improve access to complex project data files and models by geographically distributed design teams.
Firm
C&S Companies
Product application
Panzura distributed Global File System with centralized, offsite cloud storage reduces latency, improves performance, and provides disaster recovery.

C&S Companies (C&S), founded in 1968, has more than 450 employees providing engineering, architecture, planning, environmental, and construction services to clients through a 13-office, distributed network stretching from California to New York. C&S provides services to local, state, and federal governments; industry and manufacturing; and private businesses.

C&S turned to Panzura to solve its remote modeling performance issues by implementing a distributed Global File System with centralized, redundant, offsite cloud storage, thereby allowing architects and designers to work as if they are local.

Business requirements and storage complexity
Storage centralization, file sharing, and data protection were priorities for C&S. In 2005, C&S decided to move from a decentralized storage model across all its sites to a centralized model. Benefits were obvious, but performance suffered. In 2006, C&S was one of the first to purchase a Riverbed Steelhead WAN optimization device to speed up applications, but problems persisted.

In addition, the company found data management and protection to be a challenge on its centralized EqualLogic SAN, which had grown to more than 11 TB. Disk-to-disk backup, with a remote disaster recovery and business continuity solution, was high on the wish list but continually postponed because of cost and complexity.

Key to the success of C&S is the ability to access complex project data files quickly, regardless of the office in which they reside. Common applications in use are Autodesk Revit, Autodesk Civil 3D, and Bentley Systems MicroStation. With a centralized model, most application data movement was between Syracuse, N.Y., and a remote site, but also included some peer-to-peer sharing across sites. C&S had a MPLS network between sites, with bandwidth varying between 6 Mbps and 10 Mbps. All Internet access was through Syracuse and there was a 30-Mbps limit on the bandwidth to the Internet, thereby making Syracuse a potential bottleneck.

Latency ran 30-90 ms from Syracuse but as little as 10 ms between some sites.

Latency and lack of bandwidth were killing user productivity, and without any acceleration technology it would take more than 20 minutes to open a file. With Steelhead, application speeds improved noticeably and C&S was able to address network bandwidth issues. However, latency persisted and it still took a long time to open a file, which led to remote applications timing out. The problem wasn't bandwidth, it was the "Remote File System."

Monster on the WAN
The pain of a centralized IT infrastructure is felt most acutely in complex, vertically integrated projects (as seen in Civil 3D) that include many, maybe thousands, of files requiring thousands more file system transactions, such as opens, lookups, locks, closes, and unlocks. This is commonly referred to as the "File Open" problem in the AEC community, and C&S was no different.

As the company discovered, more than 90 percent of the delay was associated with numerous roundtrips being made to the data center for specific file operations. The farther away the office, the more acute the problem. Users went through dramatic changes in their workflows in an attempt to circumvent the problem, but the problem continued and over time the frustration became unbearable. Something had to change and a new approach was in order.

Global file system with cloud storage
C&S turned to Panzura to solve its remote CAD performance and data management problems. C&S deployed a single Global File System with eight controllers in a NAS configuration at each one of its major sites, with all data securely stored and archived on Amazon's S3 storage. Storage costs now are OPEX, based on usage. With free uploads to Amazon and downloads minimized by Panzura caching and deduplication technology, network transfer costs are minimized to less than $100 per month.

A lightweight synchronization protocol keeps everything consistent and in-sync across the entire system. Each owns and operates a true global file system with LAN speeds for edge users. Presently, C&S has a SharePoint Index Server working in unison with Panzura at the company's Syracuse headquarters. And as most company data is ingested at this site, C&S was able to build out the metadata search index for all data across eight sites. Latency has been reduced dramatically and the "file open problem" is a thing of the past.

Since data in the cloud doubles as an offsite disaster recovery solution, the case becomes even more compelling. Even with the cost of the Panzura controllers, which sell for between $40,000 and $60,000, the cost was reasonable. A comparable on-premises solution would have cost $200,000 to $300,000. Amazon storage for C&S Companies costs about $1,000 per month.

Measurable results
With Panzura deployed, latency has just about been eliminated. The first read of a remote file takes less than one minute, with subsequent reads requiring only a few seconds. File sharing across sites now happens in real time, boosting productivity and reducing time to job completion. The standard practice under the old infrastructure that saw locations working on day-old copies of data has changed to instantaneous updates (see Table 1).

Item Calif. to N.Y. Ariz. to N.Y.
File Size 1.5 MB 1.5 MB
Round Trip Latency 68 ms 66 ms
WAN Bandwidth 10 Mbps 9 Mbps
Time to Open Directly 22 min. 16 min.
Open Over Cold WAN Optimized Link 24 min. 17 min.
Open Over Hot Optimized Link 20 min. 15 min.
Open with Panzura 8 sec. 8 sec.
Table 1: File-open times for C&S Companies offices

End users noticed an immediate difference without having to alter their workflow. Application integration went smoothly and included all highly used items such as Revit, Civil 3D, and MicroStation, among others. Presently, C&S is on a path to completely eliminate tape backups from its global IT environment, relying entirely on cloud redundancy and Panzura recoverability. With Panzura's frequent global snapshot and real-time replication capabilities, data is always securely stored and protected.

C&S now has the system it requires today, but also knows this system can scale easily as the company grows. For its end users, the solution design was exactly the right fit.

A white paper, "CAD Theory of Operation and Best Practices with Panzura Cloud Storage Controllers," is available at http://panzura.com/resources/white-papers.

Ranajit Nevatia is vice president of marketing for Panzura (www.panzura.com).


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