Turning Growth into Metamorphosis
By most estimates, organic corporate growth is desirable; organizational growth is a sign of health, the bounty of wise decisions paying off. Most people understand, at least in the abstract, that the flip side of growth is growing pains, the disorganization that often attends rapid expansion and the saturation of overburdened IT systems.
There is another subtle aspect of growth that is often overlooked in the chaotic and exciting period of corporate expansion. This negative aspect of growth is exposure; the more one has, the more one has to lose. Today, corporations consider a solid disaster recovery plan excellent insurance.
National Leasing is in the small ticket leasing market, which means leases up to $750,000. Their leases include office, warehouse, medical, dental, agricultural, and golf course equipment. Started in 1984, National Leasing is Canada's largest privately held leasing company with approximately 400 million dollars in assets and 180 employees.
National Leasing has seen steady growth. Arthur Anhalt, the Vice President of IT at National Leasing says, "When I started here 15 years ago there were about 25 people in the company. For 10 of those 15 years, we have had between 20% and 30% growth."
MS SQL Bursting at the Seams
An area in the company where National Leasing started to feel the pinch of growth was in their databases. They were using Microsoft SQL Server as a backend to their core business systems and MS SQL was reaching the saturation point.
National Leasing services roughly 50,000 active leases each month and their accounts receivable system was sending out 50,000 invoices monthly with an equivalent number of incoming cash and receivables. This volume, plus the flood of other informational details it took to manage a thriving business was overwhelming MS SQL's ability to keep up. Anhalt talks about the problematic size of their database, "We had what we considered to be huge database sizes with individual tables that are millions of rows. Trying to manipulate that much information, and do any sort of analysis on it, quickly chews up a lot of memory. Performance was becoming an issue."
The issue transcended performance; there were also basic flaws in the architecture that were impeding information exchange between their back office systems. National Leasing runs three primary systems, and at the time, each had its own server and MS SQL database. These isolated silos of interrelated business information were limiting their ability to analyze the total picture of the business. The first system was a Java Internet-based credit scoring adjudication system called FastCredit that is available to all sales reps and business partners. The second application was a Sybase PowerBuilder-based Lease Management System that handles the full lease lifecycle, all billing, adjustments, and inventory tracking, including final disposal of the leased item. The third system was the financial packages of general ledger, accounts payable, and accounts receivable. Anhalt sums up the trouble they were having with interrelated information, "We had these three systems, all with separate data but tied together in some cases. We were constantly copying data back and forth between them, which was problematic because it was hard to maintain and it didn't work very well."
National Leasing needed to consolidate their information storage, a step that was even further out of reach given their MS SQL servers were already overloaded, even when running with a dedicated server for each product. In 2001 they began a careful, somewhat slow-moving search for a new database system to power the business.
Anhalt explains: We looked at different databases, Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise, new versions of Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and open source products. . I knew that originally Microsoft and Sybase were partners on the database products and then went their separate ways. We started looking at Sybase thinking that with a common ancestor, there would be some similarities between the systems and the code would convert more easily. Our people were also fully trained with Microsoft SQL Server and there were enough commonalities between the two products that we thought the knowledge would transfer." In fact, Sybase ASE and MS SQL server are compatible and the migration effort is minimal.
In late 2003 they started investigating Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise. They downloaded the free evaluation developer edition and began pilot conversions of code Meanwhile the company continued to grow and the issues that had fueled the quest for a new database were reaching critical mass.
A Layer of Security from Linux and Replication Server
As long as they were converting to new database technology, they decided to make the move to Linux. This choice was driven partially because of Linux's lower cost and high performance, but the fundamental reason was that Linux lessened their security exposure from outside hacking and virus infestations.
Another looming issue was business continuity and disaster recovery. The continued success of the company could be threatened by a single unfortunate event. Anhalt explains his thinking at the time, "We had experienced so much growth, and we were becoming a fairly significant player in the Canadian marketplace. While we were working on Adaptive Server Enterprise we began to get pressure about our business continuity from our auditors. One of the things that naturally piqued my interest was Sybase Replication Server's high availability features. It seemed like Sybase had it pretty well covered. If this building were destroyed, we would have to go retrieve our offsite backup tapes, identify an alternate facility, and then get it up and running. Even assuming that we had done a lot of the prep work for this facility ahead of time, my assessment was it would take us 3-4 days to get back up and running. That is really just getting our FastCredit system back up because that is what feeds the pipeline for the business. After 9/11 I read a lot of articles where companies were out of business for about a week. Many of these companies did not manage to make it back to where they were before. In fact a lot of them went bankrupt just from being out of operation for a week. If you can't get a lease from us for a week, chances are, next time you're going to go somewhere else."
Sybase Replication Server was exactly the cornerstone they needed to build an airtight disaster recovery plan.
Sybase's VAR Program Works
After working with the developer edition of Adaptive Server Enterprise and getting a good feel for its applicability to the project, Anhalt began talking with Sybase. National Leasing wanted some expert advice on both moving to Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise, and creating an architecture capable of handling database consolidation and scalability.
Sybase has built an active value added reseller (VAR) program that connects existing and potential users with local trained resources. Early on, Sybase recommended the Sybase VAR Pentelar based in Ottawa, Ontario. While Ottawa and Winnipeg are considerably more than a country mile apart – even by Canadian standards – the expertise was certainly helpful. Pentelar brought technical knowledge and a deep understanding of Sybase product configurations.
Rustum Tharani, Vice President of Business Development at Pentelar remembers their initial meeting, "Mr. Anhalt certainly did his homework. He found a lot of information on the Sybase website. He had done his own checking with his contacts. He had done his due diligence and some of the testing. He was very knowledgeable when we first connected. Over the course of talking to Arthur and his folks, we formed a much better idea of what the production environments needed to look like."
Pentelar initially arranged for National Leasing to meet with Sybase support experts. This was followed up by a face to face meeting in Winnipeg (by the end of the meeting they had mapped out a product architecture that would address National Leasing's current and future requirements). Pentelar arranged the necessary licenses for the Linux versions of Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise and Replication Server. In addition, Pentelar provided an onsite expert for a week of advanced training on Adaptive Server Enterprise and Replication Server.
The final solution put two systems, FastCredit and the Lease Management system on the same Linux ASE database server, and the financial systems on a separate Linux ASE server. The FastCredit and lease systems have a high degree of common information and the shared server arrangement gives National Leasing's analysis tools access to a complete snapshot. For business continuity, they use Replication Server to create mirrored systems in their office in case of local hardware failure; they also replicate to an alternate facility where they would continue to operate should the building itself be lost.
How Valuable is an Effective Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plan?
Replication Server made business sense to Arthur Anhalt and it was easy to justify from the perspective of hard numbers. In the event of a catastrophic failure, he estimates it would cost them $400,000 a day in near-term revenue, which does not take into account any long-term damage to their reputation.
Anhalt explains, "While I have no tangible numbers to give a real ROI, we have $800,000 to $1,000,000 dollars into this whole project. This includes the license costs – which was the smallest part of it – and our internal salaries, plus costs for some ancillary systems we are having converted to Sybase. I can still justify it without tangible numbers, simply in terms of our business continuity process. Without Sybase Replication Server we would be down for 3 - 4 days at $400,000 per day. " We now have the capability to activate our remote facility in approximately two hours.
Seeding Continued Success
Growth, like any other aspect of business, needs to be managed. National Leasing was outgrowing their database capacity, and the migration to Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise provided both scalability and data consolidation.
Putting the Lease Management System and the FastCredit system on the same database has improved the effective operation of the company. Putting the financial packages on a system that was not maxed out has also increased efficiency. According to Anhalt the end users are pleased, "We have a lot of people who run ad hoc queries to do analysis, especially with the accounting and finance area. They like both the responsiveness, and the ability to pull together data across the different packages. This has made their jobs more efficient."
Sybase is serious about ensuring customer success. Not only do the products work as advertised, but Sybase's Value Added Reseller program is a model of cooperative efficiency, benefiting the customer, the VAR, and Sybase. Sybase introduced National Leasing to Pentelar, and Pentelar provided technical abilities, training, product knowledge, and a thorough understanding of the inner workings of Sybase. Technology aside, the Pentelar VAR relationship played a major role in the National Leasing project and helped guarantee success.
There comes a time when linear growth reaches an inflection point and an organization needs to start thinking differently about its exposure to both known and unforeseen threats. National Leasing's move to Linux for their core business systems was a direct response to lower their vulnerability to hacker and virus attacks. Using Sybase Replication Server to continuously populate a remote site with their critical business information reflects a new stage of corporate maturity.