Guest Post: Using Exchange on Nimble – The Foster Pepper Story »

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Lucas G. Clara
Director of Information Technology
Foster Pepper PLLC

As a Legal Services Firm (125 attorneys, two locations, lots of email data) one of our key communication channels with clients is email. Email is also a critical internal tool for Firm operations and communication. Attorneys and administrators rely on email live in Outlook while in the office, reading email on a smart phone or tablet while traveling or out of the office. Our dependency on email is profound: it is a primary method of communication, it is the chief tool for document exchange, and it is the filing cabinet for most everything. Any interruption of email access is an interruption to productivity; we can’t function without it. Even the briefest slowdown or outage of access is tremendously disruptive.

From an architecture standpoint, our Exchange email environment is centralized for our two Washington offices and runs in our Seattle datacenter. We have a Client Access Server (CAS) array that fronts the Exchange database servers. The Exchange databases are comprised of 4 mailbox servers in an Exchange 2010 Database Availability Group configuration (2 Active Servers, 2 Standby Servers) with 16 mailbox stores, 575 mailboxes and 2.1TB of storage. All systems are virtualized with VMware ESXi.

We find the largest benefits of running Exchange on Nimble Storage in two primary areas: performance and backuprecoveryDR.

Performance:

In the past we had to leverage a mixture of fast SSD drives for our attorney email system and fiber channel SAS for our staff email system. The complexity and cost of balancing performance with space made the traditional system more and more challenging to manage. There was high cost in adding SSD and SAS storage to meet our performance needs (2200 IOPS on average) as well as continued administrative overhead in managing expensive disk for long term email storage. This all meant a continued investment in expensive disk, or a complex archiving system and more tiering of storage. But, enter Nimble…

With the implementation of a Nimble CS240 we eliminated the more traditional tiered storage SAN environment. Nimble Storage uses a SSD cache acceleration fronting high-capacity disk drives. They call it Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout (CASL). You can read details about it on their website; but from a practical standpoint, the CASL architecture of Nimble Storage now benefits us in these ways:

  1. Flash Cache provides us with the high speed disk performance of SSD
  2. High capacity disks provide us with enough volume for large mailboxes
  3. Because of the Flash Cache and High Capacity disk combination in the Nimble Storage array, we eliminate the management overhead and complexity of tiering storage for the dichotomy of performance and long term low-access storage.
  4. A competitive array price provides us with an economical way to provide both the performance and storage requirements our Exchange environment requires.
  5. As the Director of Technology I no longer have to care or worry about what class of storage is being used. I am confident that performance and costs are both being effectively addressed by Nimble. I have more time to tackle other business objectives.

Monthly IOP Chart for Exchange Database Server 1:

BackupRecoveryDR:

Though we utilize a Microsoft Exchange DAG cluster in the Seattle datacenter for continuous access in the event of an Exchange system failure, a need still exists for Exchange backup and recovery. Full system backup is still critical to address database or system failures, and mailboxes still have to be restored from time to time…

The old methodology of backup was through the use of a system and Exchange backup agent and a disk based backup array. A full backup of the Exchange systems took approximately 6 hours to complete. During the nightly backup window, performance was affected and the Exchange administrator had to ensure no other Exchange maintenance routines would run. Offsite replication took an additional several hours after the backup job completed. A restoration of an Exchange server would take the Exchange administrator a full day to deal with, which made the process inefficient and generally impractical. Basically, the whole process was necessary, but it was a necessary evil.

After the introduction of the Nimble CS240 we:

  1. Run three snapshot backups a day and replicate offsite twice daily.
  2. Exchange users notice no performance degradation
  3. The backups take minutes, not hours
  4. Snapshot backups require very little additional disk space
  5. Are recoverable and mountable locally and remotely
  6. A mailbox or Exchange system can be recovered in literally minutes
  7. Can regularly test our procedures for Disaster Recovery

Mid-day replication of Exchange is complete, the next snapshot and replication is at 1:00 AM:

Nimble’s story seems too good to be true, and prior to testing (and subsequently implementing) Nimble I was skeptical, but we’ve had profound success with Nimble Storage. I have evaluated and been a customer of several other Enterprise Storage vendors, but none have delivered on their technology in the way Nimble has. With Nimble we have reduced power consumption, cooling needs and rack usage; eliminated traditional backup and associated backup windows, shortened our recovery point objective, improved server performance and improved perceived user experience. We now exclusively use Nimble in our datacenter for Enterprise Storage.

Lucas Clara
Foster Pepper PLLC

Lucas is the Director of Information Technology at Foster Pepper PLLC. He has more than 15 years of experience in infrastructure architecture, Systems Administration and IT management. He likes innovative technology that solves business problems and simultaneously eases administration.

For more than a century Foster Pepper has represented publicly traded corporations, closely held businesses, commercial and investment banks, municipalities, government agencies, professional corporations, partnerships, joint ventures, and individuals. With 125 lawyers located in Seattle and Spokane, Washington, our extensive legal experience and community involvement allows us to successfully navigate complex and politically sensitive projects, as well as efficiently staff smaller, less complex matters.