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Credit union goes wireless for business continuity

Canadian-based credit union saves a bundle with a wireless SAN

Editor's note: Steinbach Credit Union won the silver medal in the Spring 2003 Storage Innovator awards competition. The award was presented on April 10 in Chicago at the Storage Management 2003 conference for Steinbach's unique approach to replicating a storage area network.

When you're running a full-service credit union with 51,000 members and $1.3 billion in assets, you have little choice but to consider all the "what if" disaster scenarios.

Such was the case for Steinbach Credit Union of Steinbach, Canada, and recently a new location and data center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. As the country's largest two-branch credit union, it offers consumer, agricultural and commercial loans, savings and checking accounts, asset management, ATM and credit cards, as well as online banking and bill payment.

To keep these operations up and running, IT manager Lloyd Dueck and network administrator Denis Van Dale became proactive about disaster recovery planning. They raised questions about the ongoing availability and recoverability of data: "What if a 747 hit Steinbach? What if there was a fire or a flood?" The answers weren't comforting.

"We'd be dead in the water, we'd have nothing. It would have taken several weeks to get back up and running," Dueck said.

By 2000, Steinbach was researching a disaster recovery plan and 24x7 no-fail solution. What they chose was a storage area network (SAN) replication solution with a twist: a SAN combined with iFCP and wireless for disaster recovery.

With the Winnipeg branch expansion announced, Dueck and Van Dale decided to take advantage of the new site by hosting a second SAN at their Winnipeg site. This would allow Steinbach to mirror data to and from both branches, allowing access to customer information -- independent of what site they were trying to access it from. However, a high-speed data link between the sites, approximately 30 miles apart, would have cost $70,000 per month for a 100MB Fibre Channel link or $45,000 per month for a 50MB link, according to Dueck.

"We all fell off of our chairs when we started getting the costs," Dueck said. The other option was to forget about disaster recovery and consider a much slower T1 line -- which Dueck said was unacceptable.

"That's when we started talking to telcos about wireless SANs," Dueck said. They realized several banks in the United States were using wireless, and Dueck's research indicated that a line-of-sight digital radio system using iFCP to replicate data between the two locations would be the most effective and cost-efficient solution for Steinbach Credit Union as well, costing fewer than $200,000 for the complete implementation.

They decided on two Xiotech Magnitude SANs, one for primary data in Steinbach and one for replicated data in Winnipeg. Nishan IP storage switches convert local Fibre Channel traffic to iFCP for transport and then back to Fibre Channel, and Proxim Wireless LAN bridges. To step down the bandwidth for wireless transport, they implemented Cisco Gigabit Ethernet-to-Fast Ethernet switches, according to Dueck.

To transmit the wireless signal, there is a 100-foot tall radio tower at each branch and equidistant between the two sites is a 150-foot tall radio tower. The wireless link is secured using Proxim data encryption, according to Dueck.

"There would be about a two-year return on investment when comparing the cost of leased lines," Dueck said. It also saved Steinbach from having to purchase servers annually for roughly $50,000.

The new infrastructure provides Steinbach customers with 24x7 access to loan and financial information. "Customers can walk into either office and the information is there," Dueck said.

It also lets the company test new software and upgrades before workstation installation, and do maintenance on the regular network during business hours by defaulting traffic to the Winnipeg SAN. They also have the ability to deploy additional wireless links to new locations in the future.

An unexpected benefit from the new infrastructure is the ability to create an integrated phone system on the wireless LAN. Not only have they cut their long-distance phone charges by a third, calls can also be sent immediately over the network no matter what branch they originate in, said Dueck.

"The DR application itself prevents loss of business due to outages at the data center, thus contributing to Steinbach's profitability and customer retention," Clark said. "The ability to integrate voice as well as storage over an economical WAN link was an unanticipated benefit."

For more on Steinbach Credit Union, visit the company's Web site.

Get more information on Nishan's IP storage switches by clicking here.


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