When The Customer Doesn't Do Windows
Integrator Graphtech Systems employed RAID, Gigabit Ethernet, and wireless technology to eliminate a printing firm's cross-platform network problems and close a $200,000 deal.
Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century. According to Ed Joras, partner and technology consultant at Graphtech Systems, LLC, when that art meets technology, big opportunities emerge for integrators who can meet the resulting storage and networking challenges. Increased workstation horsepower, larger hard drive sizes, higher network speeds, and increased RAM (random access memory) allow creative graphic designers to work with more complex (and, as a result, larger) files. Meanwhile, software enhancements reduce the amount of time it takes to produce professional results. For example, creating soft shadows for a smooth three-dimensional effect once took many hours to process. Since the advent of Macintosh's G4 Power PCs, it now takes a few minutes. Yes, Macintosh. That is one of the interesting - and challenging -- aspects of working in vertical markets like graphic arts. Joras estimates that Mac owns about 95% of that market, but those customers still need to stay connected in a predominantly PC world.
IPP Litho (Chicago), one of Joras' long-time customers, was feeling the effects of these trends in the market. IPP Litho specializes in prepress and printing, taking a file from an ad agency or other source and assembling it for high-resolution output. Instead of receiving the 10 MB or 15 MB files as they once did, IPP was finding that files were routinely five or six times larger than that and sometimes as high as 500 MB. The company's 300 GB server was 80% full most of the time, despite the fact that anywhere from 10% to 30% of the files were being archived regularly. In addition, IPP's 100BaseT switched Ethernet network wasn't fast enough to accommodate the increasing load. While IPP would have liked to incorporate computer-to-plate workflow, the network just wasn't up to the challenge of printing files that could approach 1 GB in size. When the company determined it would need to move to computer-to-plate production methods to reduce costs, IPP realized it would have to do something about its networks and servers. "IPP needed its existing workforce to be more productive, but they had hit a wall with their infrastructure," comments Joras.
RAID Combines Redundancy, Cross-Platform Capability
Graphtech recommended a 1.2 TB JetStor II LVD (low voltage differential) RAID (redundant array of independent disks) subsystem from Advanced Computer and Network Corp. (ACNC) (Pittsburgh) to address the company's storage shortage. In addition to redundancy for mission-critical data, a RAID level 5 system offers fast retrieval times. An added advantage of JetStor II is the fact that it is suitable for cross-platform environments. In the case of IPP, that means that Mac files are often stored on an HP server with a Windows 2000 OS. "When I call a vendor and ask if the hardware is going to work for Mac files, they often say, 'Yeah, it should.' I don't have time for that," states Joras, whose company also uses ACNC products with Apple and UNIX servers. Customers like IPP put valuable business assets in such a system, and downtime doesn't just mean employees are idle. "The worst thing that can happen to them is to be down. The presses cost millions of dollars. In just a few hours of downtime, IPP could lose enough money to pay for the enhancements to the network and storage system."
Using a RAID array housed in a separate enclosure with its own controllers offers better data protection than an integrated disk array where the RAID controller is part of the CPU (central processing unit), says Joras. "With this design, if the CPU in the server does go, we can take the cable from the RAID array and attach it to the port on IPP's tape backup server and limp along. We even marked the cable with instructions on how to do that if the server goes down." Because IPP is operational 16 to 20 hours a day, Joras feels he must offer his customer a first line of defense that can be put into action quickly, even in the absence of designated IT staff. Graphtech supplies them with instructions and backups for critical components, so that they can at least provide a temporary solution if the system should go down.
IPP uses HP Ultrium tape libraries to back up its data. Each dual drive library holds 20 tapes and was chosen for its transport speed, which allows terabytes of data to be backed up in just a few hours. A new SQL Web server and an upgrade from DSL (digital subscriber line) to T-1 connectivity allows IPP's customers to access their files online.
Address Concerns Of Customers Who Lease
All of the hardware components are housed in a single rack, a factor that appeals to customers like IPP who lease the building in which their operations are located. The fact that it doesn't own the property also prompted IPP's choices when it came to the network infrastructure. An upgrade to Gigabit Ethernet connectivity made the implementation of a faster network easier, because it makes use of existing wiring. However, Gigabit Ethernet demands "pristine" connectors and those had to be changed.
IPP opted not to use any wires at all when the sales and support teams were connected to the LAN. Those employees who hadn't been on the network previously were assigned Macintosh iBooks or iMacs, which are connected to one of two wireless networks, which are connected to the LAN via Apple AirPort access points. As a result, IPP was not forced to invest in cabling an old building it doesn't own. Should the company move in the future, the investment in the wireless network will be preserved.
Routing To Accommodate Unusual Traffic Patterns
When retouchers at one of the 20 workstations on the network need to modify large files, they are opened on the server and transferred at a rate of about 25 MB per second. "The workstations have about 1.5 GB of RAM, and they use it," says Joras. The kind of network activity at a site like this presents a challenge for vendors as well as VARs, according to Joras. IPP's network uses Cisco 4000 series switches, which are often used in environments where there is a lot of network activity. "We tend to work in places where there is no traffic at all for a while and then a 400 MB file comes through. I think we may have been the cause of at least a couple of Cisco patches," he laughs.
Though it took Graphtech about two weeks to build the solution, from the end user's perspective the installation took about three hours. Because of IPP's requirement that it lose as little productivity as possible, Graphtech built and tested the system at its own site, reducing the amount of time needed to "cut over" at the customer site. The entire project cost about $200,000, and Joras says the company easily justified the cost of the investment. Not only have they realized the mass storage capacity that meets their needs, but IPP's network is running three to four times faster than it was previously. As a result, the company can speed the output of a printing plate, which can be hundreds of megabytes, or even a gigabyte. The time necessary to print over the network was reduced from 10 minutes to 3 minutes.
"We try to own certain kinds of problems," comments Joras. Among these are cross-platform integration and issues associated with graphic design. While the IPP installation is unique in terms of scale, the issues IPP faced also plague advertising agencies, marketing firms, and schools. While schools may not have the same file size issues, they often face the same cross-platform challenge, with data from a huge number of users mostly generated by Macs and at least half the servers on Windows.