Engineering consulting firm replaces stand-alone file servers with WAFS

Employees in different locations often work on the same project or proposal, and need to access the same files. But with a network of 450,000 files and 300 GB of storage, trading files back and forth isn’t exactly efficient.Previously, Wardrop had stand-alone file servers in each location.
“We needed a centralized file system,” says William Ip, CIO of Wardrop. “In the past, they would have just traded the file back and forth and there was a risk of using the wrong version of the file.”
Wardrop turned to wide-area file services (WAFS) from Andover, Mass.-based Availl Inc. to bring its file system online in every office at the same time. When a file is in use by one employee, other users can open that file in read-only mode. This means they’re not overwriting each other, but no one is locked out from viewing any file.

centralized backup

The company has roughly 660 users in eight offices that use WAFS. A central server is hosted in its Winnipeg office, which acts as a traffic cop. Each location has an Availl client that maintains a replica of the data. If any office goes down, the other offices remain up and running. When the connection returns, it replicates any changes.
“The backup is all centralized so we don’t have to have seven separate backup systems in every office,” says Ip.
Its network is used for corporate e-mail, management information system and project management system (but not voice) via dedicated E10 fibre connected to its Winnipeg office and T1 fibre connected to its other offices. It has a service-level agreement in place with its provider, Rogers Telecom (formerly Sprint Canada).
“The feature we wanted and needed was active file logging,” says Ip. “That’s one of the key differentiators between a wide-area file system and a typical replication system.” A replication system just replicates the file, which means other users are locked out from viewing that file when someone is using it.
Since many of its shared files are CAD files, another alternative was to use a product data management (PDM) solution from a CAD vendor.
“I wouldn’t say that Availl necessarily replaces PDM — there’s a time and a place for PDM,” says Ip. But PDM wouldn’t work for Wardrop, he says, partly because it’s too expensive and partly because it’s incompatible with the company’s workflow processes.
“A lot of it comes down to how we as a company operate and how our staff works with files,” he says. With PDM, a CAD user would have to check files in and out, which would lock out other users.

updates move very little traffic

WAFS gives these users access to a central repository of all corporate project data on a local level, which makes better use of the company’s bandwidth, says Ip. It also eliminates the problem of having to update files at night — a reason why many CAD users don’t like using PDM products.
“I open the file, I work with it, I hit save, it instantly updates that file everywhere else,” says Craig Randall, vice-president of operations with Availl. It appears to employees that they’re all in one room operating from one file server. It also eliminates virtually all the traffic, he says, because only byte-level changes to files are sent across the WAN, rather than the whole file.
Availl claims byte-level differencing reduces traffic by up to 95 per cent. “Almost no traffic is going to move across the network to keep it up to date,” says Randall.
WAFS is ideal for companies with numerous sites and distributed operations, where there’s a common set of data in multiple locations. “If you’ve got remote offices and five people and they access files maybe twice a day, put in a VPN and you’re all set,” he says. “But if there is any kind of significant need for common data at multiple sites, that’s what you would use us for.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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