4-page Case Study - Posted 1/6/2010
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Construction Firm Improves E-mail Availability, Performance with Server Solution
PCL Constructors (PCL) consists of a group of independent construction companies that have an annual construction volume of more than U.S.$6 billion. Because PCL employees rely heavily on its messaging solution to communicate internally and with clients about important information, such as project planning, schedules, and budgets for more than 500 projects at any one time, PCL must ensure that it has a highly reliable, secure, and redundant system in place to support them. When PCL learned about the new high availability and storage architecture in Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, it decided to deploy a pilot to evaluate how it could optimize the availability and performance of its messaging environment. PCL will take advantage of Exchange Server 2010 data replication technologies to implement a high-availability solution that improves performance, reduces costs, and is easier to manage.
Founded in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 1906, PCL Constructors (PCL) handles civil, building, and heavy industrial construction projects through major offices in 27 locations. Now based in Edmonton, Alberta, the employee-owned company has more than 3,000 full-time employees and 5,000 hourly tradespeople engaged in projects across Canada, the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.
PCL believes in investing in technology to help it operate more effectively. In 2007, PCL started an infrastructure optimization effort that included upgrading many of its server computers to the Windows Server 2008 operating system. Through late 2007 and into 2008, PCL continued to upgrade its infrastructure, which also included upgrading its desktop systems from the Windows XP operating system to the Windows Vista operating system and from Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 to Microsoft Office Professional 2007. As part of its effort to upgrade systems and critical line-of-business applications, PCL also planned to upgrade its messaging platform from Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 to Exchange Server 2007 e-mail messaging and collaboration software. “Our intent was to upgrade Exchange Server and have a better synergy with the other products we were upgrading in our environment,” explains Shane Crawford, Manager of Infrastructure for PCL Constructors. “However, we faced some load issues with our Exchange Server 2003 environment that we felt we needed to re-engineer a bit before we moved forward.”
PCL experienced an increasing performance demand on its Exchange Server 2003 environment due to heavier volumes of e-mail traffic among its employees. Because e-mail is one of the most critical systems in PCL’s environment, it must maintain an “always-on” approach, no matter the situation. With Exchange Server 2003, PCL relied on third-party products to help provide high availability and site resilience. The company hoped to streamline its messaging environment with Exchange Server 2007. “Originally we thought that some of the features in Exchange Server 2007, such as standby continuous replication, would be pretty compelling in terms of helping us provide an alternate environment,” says Crawford. However, PCL found itself in a situation where even if it had a reliable failover solution, it would have to continue to add hardware and storage in order to keep up with the volume of e-mail.
PCL also needed to address other performance-related issues for its employees. PCL offers graduated mailbox sizes, from 100 to 400 megabytes, depending on a user’s role. Employees were easily reaching their mailbox limits, and they were relying heavily on Outlook Data Files (PSTs) to store e-mail. PCL used an older, fiber-channel storage area network (SAN) solution for e-mail storage, even though it had upgraded much of its storage infrastructure to Internet small computer system interface (iSCSI). PCL needed a way to increase mailbox sizes and update its e-mail storage without affecting performance on the server.
In August 2009, PCL decided to deploy a pilot of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010. Although it had originally planned to deploy Exchange Server 2007, PCL recognized that the latest version could help it quickly solve several of its most pressing issues. PCL worked with Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Compugen, to help plan, design, and test the system that it hopes to deploy later in 2009. “Compugen is a long-standing partner of ours, and they helped us understand our current environment and prepare for the transition to Exchange Server 2010. We used them to vet technical issues, such as how to design the Database Availability Group,” says Crawford.
||The reliability, the scalability, and the ability of the system to react to issues in the environment without users being aware of any change—all of that is really valuable to us because it lets users continue to operate uninterrupted.
Manager of Infrastructure, PCL Constructors
In terms of its physical deployment, PCL will reuse some of the systems that it purchased for the conversion to Exchange Server 2007. “We will probably use about seven physical servers—we are still determining how much hardware we need—but our long-term goal is to virtualize most systems. We are heavily virtualized in our existing systems, and that is our path forward,” says Crawford.
To address its requirements for high availability and site resilience, PCL plans to use a Database Availability Group, which combines on-site and off-site data replication into a single high-availability solution that safeguards the messaging environment from downtime. PCL can define mailbox servers as part of a Database Availability Group and use continuous replication to provide automatic recovery from a variety of failures at the disk, server, or data center level. The company will deploy five database copies—three copies in its main data center and two at its disaster recovery location—to ensure its “always-on” environment. “The reliability, the scalability, and the ability of the system to react to issues in the environment without users being aware of any change—all of that is really valuable to us because it lets users continue to operate uninterrupted,” explains Crawford.
To address storage and performance issues, PCL plans to deploy Exchange Server 2010 in its iSCSI environment. “We are fairly well-invested in iSCSI at this point. The alternative would have been to rebuild the fiber-channel infrastructure, but we were able to use our iSCSI environment and add storage to meet our needs,” says Crawford. Because it can increase storage without affecting performance, PCL hopes to double the size of mailboxes, enabling employees to rely less on PST files and have better access to important information.
PCL also plans to upgrade its current e-mail security solution to Microsoft Forefront Protection 2010 for Exchange Server, which provides comprehensive messaging protection against viruses, worms, spyware, and spam by integrating multiple scanning engines from industry-leading security partners. “We have Forefront Client Security on the desktop today,” explains Crawford. “We like the multiple engine options in particular, and overall, we feel like Forefront gives us stability, which is important for availability.”
Employees will also take advantage of improvements to Microsoft Outlook Web App. They will be able to access their inboxes from any major Web browser. They will also be able to use Conversation View to sort their e-mail by conversation topic, enabling them to access information more quickly.
With Exchange Server 2010, PCL believes it can meet its goal of improving messaging availability and system performance. These benefits will allow it to continue to offer employees an environment where they can work without worrying about outages. “Our ability to maintain the system and keep employees operating even if things are changing in the background is key to the business,” says Crawford. “The design of Exchange Server 2010 should help simplify our ability to keep the service running.”
Optimized Availability and Performance
By deploying Exchange Server 2010, PCL will address the availability, performance, and storage issues that it faces with its current aging solution. “Having the Database Availability Group as a native service for availability and failover inside of Exchange Server 2010 is really valuable. It’s easier and more consistent in terms of operations, and it requires less administrative effort,” says Crawford. “If we can retire our third-party solution, we’ll also likely see a cost savings in terms of maintenance.”
||Our ability to maintain the system and keep employees operating even if things are changing in the background is key to the business. The design of Exchange Server 2010 should help simplify our ability to keep the service running.
Manager of Infrastructure, PCL Constructors
PCL also sees great advantage in the way Exchange Server 2010 helps optimize its current iSCSI SAN infrastructure. “One of the main things that caught our attention was the architectural work that went into the storage design that gives us more options to make Exchange Server fit into our current technical environment,” says Crawford.
PCL looks forward to extending Microsoft Forefront Protection 2010 for Exchange Server to its messaging platform. “Given our other work with Forefront, the consistency of our ability to administer security across the infrastructure is pretty attractive,” says Crawford. “We no longer have to deal with multiple management consoles and multiple skill sets to manage different types of security products. Forefront takes care of it all.”
Improved User Experience
Although PCL’s evaluation of Exchange Server 2010 was based more around infrastructure than end-user experience, it realizes that employees will benefit in several key areas. The optimization of messaging availability and performance is primary because employees can continue to work without interruption, whether the IT team is performing maintenance or a network outage occurs. Employees will also benefit greatly from larger mailbox sizes because they can focus on the content of their mailbox, instead of offloading messages to maintain size and performance.
Remote employees will especially benefit from improvements to Outlook Web App. “Outlook Web App has more of a desktop flavor,” says Crawford. “Workers who access their e-mail through the Internet feel more like they are using a desktop client. We hope to get more people using this so that they don’t have to log in remotely or carry their laptops everywhere.”
With the deployment of Exchange Server 2010, PCL looks forward to more improvements to its messaging infrastructure, including a possible upgrade to Microsoft Outlook 2010 in the near future.
Microsoft Exchange Server 2010
Exchange Server 2010 can help you achieve better business outcomes while controlling the costs of deployment, administration, and compliance. Exchange Server delivers the widest range of deployment options, integrated information leakage protection, and advanced compliance capabilities, which combine to form the best messaging and collaboration solution available.
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