ServersHardware Today: Ad Firm Opts for Apple

Hardware Today: Ad Firm Opts for Apple

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When Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) began expanding its business, company executives determined that the aging network had become an obstacle to growth. The Miami-based advertising firm earned a reputation for rescuing clients from a declining market share, but it now needed to rescue itself from its own series of challenges: network slowdowns; labor-intensive systems management; rapidly increasing storage consumption needs; and the inefficiencies of Microsoft NT Server Services for Macintosh (SFM), which enables PCs and Macs to share resources such as file and print.

Crispin Porter + Bogusky is taking a bigger bite of the Apple. In the past few months, the creative shop has added Xserve, Xserve Raid, and Apple Xsan, as well as extended the reach of Mac boxes deeper into the enterprise.

“NT and Windows 98 were long in the tooth and not well-suited to our main product — creative services,” says Jordan Kilpatrick, vice president of information systems and IT director for CP+B. “The people who needed the highest performance received the exact opposite.”

Despite a fully switched 10/100 network with fiber gigabit uplinks between switches, network response had slowed to a crawl. This was of particular concern to CP+B’s design and graphics teams, whose members generate large amounts of documentation during any production day. In addition to e-mail and text files, they create digital video, high-resolution graphics, and large database files. Yet accessing one large file, not to mention sending it over the network from one user to another, could be rather time consuming because of network issues.

Kilpatrick blamed slow network performance primarily on his aging Windows network and its inability to integrate well with escalating Apple-based storage demands. As a result, CP+B implemented an Apple Xserve server and an Apple Xsan-based storage-area network.

“Our entire business depends on our ability to solve problems creatively and Apple has given us the tools to do that,” says Kilpatrick. “If you don’t want a huge IT department that’s always mired in crises and constantly worrying about viruses, compatibility, and performance issues, then you definitely want to incorporate Xsan and Xserve RAID into your network.”

NT = Network Troubles

CP+B counts Burger King, Mini, Ikea, and Virgin Atlantic Airways among its prominent corporate clients. In the past few months, the company picked up new accounts, such as VW and Miller Lite, and added an office in Boulder, Colo. As problems with CP+B’s aging network accelerated, Kilpatrick searched for the right upgrade path to an infrastructure of multiple servers running Linux, Windows, and Apple.

In particular, the company had been using a Windows NT4 domain with authorization and file/print functions. The system was built around several NT servers, as well as network-attached storage from Snap Appliance (now part of Adaptec). Two NT boxes were used for the network operating system and file/print, along with several Snap servers, a Linux mail server, a test Mac OS X server box, and a Linux SCO box for accounting.

“The network wasn’t the bottleneck, the protocols were,” says Kilpatrick. “We had a functioning but slow NT network, so I decided to give Windows 2000 a chance to prove itself.”

Some 70 percent of staff now use Mac, and about 30 percent use Windows desktops. In contrast, before the upgrades, the Mac-PC user ratio was nearly the opposite — 80 percent Windows and 20 percent Mac.

The first big change was the addition of a Windows 2000 file server with enough direct-attached storage. Then came the installation of GroupLogic’s ExtremeZ-IP file server software that added Mac file sharing to Windows file servers. During the transition, the network operating system was upgraded to Microsoft Active Directory (AD) running on Microsoft Exchange 2003.

The migration to OS X, which began mainly to solve OS 9 problems, then took an unexpected turn. The network had always catered to a mix of Mac and PC systems, but the platform ratio was reversed: Some 70 percent of staff now use Mac, and about 30 percent use Windows desktops. In contrast, before the upgrades, the Mac-PC user ratio was nearly the opposite — 80 percent Windows and 20 percent Mac.

Originally, Kilpatrick wanted to use AppleShare IP (ASIP), which he considered an excellent Mac-based file server. But Apple was having issues with ASIP software and stopped selling it. So he opted instead for an Apple Xserve server. The company now has 10 Xserves performing various functions.

Apple’s Xserve G5 offers a 1U server with dual 64-bit G5 processors at speeds of up to 2.3 GHz. It is a Unix-based server operating system with unlimited clients. It comes with up to 1.5 TB storage, PCI-X expansion, dual Gigabit Ethernet, fast I/O ports, and an optical drive.

In tandem with Xserve, Kilpatrick implemented Apple Xsan software and about a dozen Apple Xserve RAID boxes for storing data safely. Xsan is an enterprise-class storage-area network (SAN) solution that lets multiple computers concurrently access terabytes or petabytes of storage on an Xserve RAID box over high-speed Fibre Channel. Xsan uses the 64-bit file system in Mac OS X v10.4 “Tiger,” allowing users to share files and volumes up to 2 petabytes.

“We blow through storage so fast that I find any mention of 1 to 3 TB solutions as cute — I have Firewire drives bigger than that,” says Kilpatrick. “The pace of this company is so fast that it’s more efficient just to add capacity.”

Xserve RAID uses a high-capacity Ultra ATA drive technology 2 GB Fibre Channel interface for data access. Xserve RAID works well with Mac OS X Server, and it can be used with Windows-, Linux-, or NetWare-based servers. Xserve RAID offers up to 7 TB of redundant storage, with a 42U rack holding 98 TB of storage.

Together with Xserve RAID, Xsan scaled as the agency tripled staff during a three-year period. With new infrastructure in place, CP+B dramatically reduced storage management overhead without expanding the size of the IT staff.

The move to Apple storage fixed several problems, such as issues with labor-intensive NT systems and network management. Challenges related to the retention of the Mac OS 9 operating system were resolved. And the concerns of the creative staff regarding network performance when accessing and relaying large graphics files were no more.

By using Apple storage, Kilpatrick reports CP+B reduced its storage management overhead and greatly improved network performance. IT staff members now have more time for other duties.

“The quality of IT support has risen as our back office is stable, and server administrators spend most of their time on new projects instead of maintenance,” says Kilpatrick. “Xserve Raid is used as storage for our Exchange and SQL servers with no problems at all.”

Dollars Per GB

At a few dollars per gigabyte, Kilpatrick believes it difficult to complain about the price. He declined, however, to detail the exact costs involved in upgrading the network.

In recent months, the company expanded the number of Apple Xserve RAID boxes to 15. Xsan RAID is used in several ways. It is used, for example for direct-attached storage for some Mac and Windows users. Its main use is in a SAN environment, where it supports mission-critical applications, such as video editing, online archiving, and offsite replication. CP+B now runs three Xsan instances in total.

According to Kilpatrick, SAN does add considerable cost over direct-attached storage configs. However, the benefits outweigh the cost. He believes Xsan is inexpensive by SAN standards.

“There are almost no hidden costs, as long as one comprehends the inherent complexity of SAN,” says Kilpatrick. “We followed Apple’s recommended hardware configurations, and it’s worked out well.”

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