Barely a week after going into production at UK-based drug developer Fulcrum Pharma last December, Availl’s wide area file services (WAFS) system underwent trial by fire, literally, when a nearby refinery caught fire, damaging Fulcrum’s new headquarters and closing down major roads and businesses.
Yet aside from staffers having to work from home or at alternate sites for a few weeks, it was business as usual at Fulcrum. No data was lost. No deadlines were missed. And everyone was able to collaborate, real-time, on projects just as they had before the fire.
A former wholly owned subsidiary of Hoffman La Roche until it was spun off in 1999, Fulcrum Pharma LLC pioneered the virtual development approach to delivering global drug development services for pharmaceutical clients. The company’s virtual office infrastructure, which allows employees to work whenever, wherever, by land, sea, or air, was the talk of the pharmaceutical industry. So finding a solution that would allow workers in different offices, in different countries, to collaborate in real-time on projects — sharing Microsoft Project and Office files as well as spreadsheets — while protecting the company’s highly sensitive data was a top priority.
Real-Time Global Collaboration
Amjid Salam, the managing director of reseller e-Director, who had been working with Fulcrum since the Hoffman La Roche days, had known of Availl since the company introduced its first WAFS solution in 2002. Now, three years later, Salam felt Availl’s WAFS solution might be just what the drug developer needed.
“Fulcrum had a number of offices and they were having a number of collaboration issues, specifically to do with latency,” explains Salam. Large documents that needed to go between the U.S. and the UK seemingly took ages to be transmitted. So they needed a solution that truly allowed virtual team members, whether across the hall, across the country, or across the ocean, to collaborate in real time.
Additionally, “we were looking for some form of replicating software that would make sure that you always had the latest version, that you had file marks, so that you wouldn’t have various users from various offices overwriting each other’s work,” says Salam, a crucial consideration in the highly regulated, highly audited pharmaceutical business.
Salam and Fulcrum IT manager Jason Hamlett initially looked at Microsoft’s distributed file system, “but it just didn’t do the job for us,” says Hamlett. “We found the replication schedules very difficult to work with. Our users require instant access to data, not a picture of what it looked like 30 minutes ago. And the file-locking capabilities of a lot of the systems we looked at were mediocre at best.”
Then last September, Salam and Hamlett demoed Availl’s WAFS and were “very impressed.” They liked the product’s instant collaboration and file-locking capabilities. And “it was the only product that handles more than five nodes on your WAFS network,” says Hamlett, making it “a no-brainer.”
After doing extensive tests, Fulcrum put the Availl WAFS into production at its UK and U.S. facilities the first week of December. Less than two weeks later, on Sunday, December 12, a major refinery fire knocked out Fulcrum’s new UK headquarters. While workers had no access to the main office, because of Availl’s instant failover and failback feature, they had continuous, uninterrupted access to all of their files, which were saved in their most recent version on Fulcrum’s Microsoft servers at its other offices.
Hamlett didn’t even need to deploy tape backups. “I just redirected some staff to our Edinburgh office, other staff directly to our disaster recovery suite [in London], and other staff to the U.S. It was seamless.”
And just as before the fire, when a staffer made a change to any file, that change was instantly made and mirrored across the network, even though the main office was off line.
“In any disaster, you really don’t want to be fighting the fire and each user’s requirements to get back working,” says Hamlett. “You want to just focus your time and your effort on fixing the issues.”
With Availl’s WAFS and continuous disk backup, he “quickly got people back to their data, [and] I’m able to sleep a lot easier at night knowing that if something blows up, I don’t have to run back to the office, call up Iron Mountain, wait for either my tape to be delivered or wait for the mechanism to physically put the data back onto my server.”
Now, six months later, Fulcrum’s global WAFS network has long since returned to its original architecture, and the company has added two new offices to its Availl network, one in the UK one in Europe. While the initial replication of data for the new European office was done in the UK and took a few hours, it took Salam only seconds to get the new server linked and replicating once it was on site.
Indeed, while the speed of the initial data replication depends on the amount of data that is being replicated and network bandwidth, “on a day-to-day basis, the overhead for Availl is minimal,” says Hamlett. “When you’re dealing with relatively small documents, a 200K Word document for example, we’re finding that they’re hitting the branch offices within a blink of an eye. We’re not seeing any latency or delay whatsoever.”
The Next Killer App?
If it’s not the next killer application, “it’s certainly a very important app,” says Mike Karp, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. “There’s a huge amount of interest in the field right now, both from companies that have remote offices and from vendors, many of whom are buying up some of the companies that provide wire area file services.”
The problem WAFS excels at addressing is long-haul communication, explains Karp. Most common applications, like those in the Microsoft Office suite, are really optimized for local area networks, “and the protocols for long-haul communication are very different. Communication over long distances can’t accommodate all the handshaking [the behind-the-scenes processing and communication] that goes on.”
What makes WAFS more efficient than other collaboration and replication software solutions, says Karp, is that it is optimized for wide area networks, sending only small packets of information, byte-level changes, across the network, which helps to eliminate chattiness and latency.
Because of its wide-are network replication capabilities, Karp also views WAFS as a key part of a multi-office company’s disaster recovery plan.
Of the Availl WAFS solution in particular, Karp says he is a fan (even though the company is not a client). “Availl has a very aggressively priced product, and they’re a software-only solution. People like that,” he says. “They’ve been around a few years now and have a bunch of installations at some pretty significant sights [including the Department of the Interior and 14 of the Fortune 100]. They address the fundamental problems associated with long-haul communication.
“If you have remote offices,” says Karp, “this is a technology that you should look at very seriously.”
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