A new architecture and version upgrade delivers better email redundancy and disaster recovery
SCHEDULED DOWNTIME COSTING TIME AND RESOURCES
NSW utility Hunter Water faced a number of challenges with its ageing Microsoft Exchange system. The existing architecture did not provide sufficient redundancy or low enough recovery point objective (RPO) for a critical business system.
The Exchange 2010 instance was in use for more than six years and that version did not support adequate fail over or redundancy in the event of an outage. To perform patching and maintenance, the IT team would schedule outages during times not critical to the business, usually after hours or weekends. This was costly for the system engineers and negatively impacted the business.
An architecture review was the start of a plan to upgrade the Exchange server and improve the data recovery capability.
TAKING A STAGED APPROACH TO AVERT DISRUPTION
CIO Richard Harris says the goal was to get all 550 mailboxes using Exchange 2016 while taking advantage of the storage capacity available.
Hunter Water is running virtual machines to host Windows Server and had the capacity and storage in its existing SAN.
“Since we had an old version of Exchange we didn’t want to do a straight upgrade, we wanted to take into consideration the new features for faster data recovery,” Harris says. “There had to be limited or no downtime once the new system was handed over to operations.”
Hunter Water engaged with Insentra, via its partner Loop Secure, to perform the Exchange server upgrade and implement the new recovery capability. Harris says Insentra was chosen as it was very cost competitive and had recently completed another successful engagement.
After sign off the project started with workshops conducted by Insentra at Hunter Water. A preliminary design was followed by a detailed design and Insentra, in consultation with Hunter Water’s technology projects group, commenced with the build.
“Once the build was completed we undertook system integration testing and user acceptance testing,” Harris says. “We then commenced a POC consisting of 50 user mailboxes transferred over from different business units for a better indication of how everything is going. That was the critical path for us as we were in co-existence mode with data residing on two separate systems and they had to be in sync.”
With the POC completed the project moved on to migrate the remaining 500 mailboxes migrated over, which was completed by Hunter Water staff. The decommissioning of the old system was completed by Insentra.
INSENTRA’S PARTNER MODEL EXPANDS LOOP SECURE’S SERVICES PORTFOLIO
The commercial engagement for Hunter Water’s Exchange upgrade was delivered by Insentra through one of its partners, Loop Secure. Loop Secure is an information security specialist and Hunter Water is its client. Loop Secure manages the commercial agreement with the client and Insentra is brought in to perform the work. Jeremy Keast, Northern Region Director at Loop Secure, says the ease of doing business with Insentra is a real benefit.
“Insentra make it simple to engage, have solid project managers and are flexible on different engagements, including dealing with last minute changes,” he says.
Loop Secure has relationships with a number of cyber security vendors, but works exclusively with Insentra for other IT services.
“We are a security firm and deal solely in cyber security so when opportunities pop up around Microsoft or Citrix technology, and more general IT engineering, we engage with Insentra,” Keast says. “We can make a quick phone call and know they are good at dealing with the customer. Insentra has a good set of additional resources for things we would otherwise have to walk away from. And Insentra doesn’t go direct to customers so there is no conflict with our customer base.”
GETTING BACK TO BUSINESS WITH IMMEDIATE RESULTS
Whilst the main focus of the project was to reduce risk and impact to users, the new design allowed Hunter Water to reduce its yearly scheduled outages, saving overtime staff costs every month. Harris estimates the organisation now saves four hours per month, per year and also reduced the impact to the business by not having to have scheduled outages. There is also less disruption to end-users, increasing productivity and support demands.
Hunter Water followed best practices for Exchange Server hosting based on recommendations from both Microsoft and Insentra. The servers are spread across two data centres and utilise a reverse proxy for external connections.
“What I found unique about this migration was at no time was there any impact to end-users,” Harris says. “It was a seamless migration, with no email corruption or any disruption and that was unique.”
Another benefit is the new Web interface with Exchange Server 2016 which helps field workers check their messages and appointments outside the office.
“With projects like these, there are times when scope may vary slightly or due to resource or business commitments, schedules may need to alter. As a professional organization dealing with complex projects of this nature Insentra understood this and accommodated where possible without introducing variations to the original contract,”Harris says. “A company willing to work with you and understand your challenges is a great thing, and difficult to find in the market. The expert staff didn’t shy away from any issues and they were always available to provide support, even outside hours.”
Harris says another benefit of working with Insentra is its personable approach, compared with some organisations which are structured, siloed and force customers to dealing with multiple account managers.
“Insentra has a pretty flat structure, I can pick up the phone and speak with the CEO or others if we need to escalate something,” he says.
With better business continuity and high availability, the new system is performing well and has dramatically reduced recovery time objectives (RTOs) from 24 hours to one hour and recovery point objectives (RPOs) from 4 hours to effectively zero.
Exchange 2016 features database availability groups and mailboxes are replicated across four databases so if one went down there will be not impact staff. Hunter Water has a primary and secondary data centre and Insentra assisted with DR testing to make sure it worked as designed.
Lastly, backups are snapshotted to storage and then replicated offsite.
Insentra Co-Founder and CEO Ronnie Altit says the Hunter Water IT team is strategic in thinking about the importance of business continuity for all its applications and helps all areas of the business avoid downtime.
“It’s great to see such an innovative approach to combining Exchange hosting with high-availability and data protection at Hunter Water. Too often business continuity is treated as something extra,” It was wonderful to work closely with our partner Loop Secure to deliver an outcome to their client in a technology that is not core to their business”. Altit says.
SERVICES: Water to some 600,000 people across 6671 square kilometres.
CHALLENGE: Ageing 2010 Exchange Server required regular maintenance and downtime.
OUTCOME: Migrated to Exchange 2016 with no downtime or loss of data. New high availability architecture slashes recovery times.
CLOUD, IOT AND THE FUTURE OF UTILITIES
With the Exchange migration over, Hunter Water is keeping up with changing delivery models and new technologies coming into the utilities industry.
“There is a driver to realise the benefits that being a digital utility can provide. Hunter Water is focused on improving customer, consumer and community experience, improved operating performance and risk management. Hunter Water understands that exploring innovative technologies that are cloud and IoT based is critical to its future.”
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