ORION: The Stars at Night Are Big and Bright

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There are several versions of the myth of Orion: One says that he was a giant and the hunter of monsters, and another says he was the wondrous blacksmith who built the subterranean palaces of Vulcan. But none of these tales in Greek mythology tell a story quite as unique as that of California-based Vision Solutions, Inc.

Vision Solutions, renowned for its Symbiator data integration tools and its Vision Suite high availability solution, is working to complete a new product that it believes will transform how companies manage the problems of high availability in heterogeneous IT environments.

The new product, called ORION, is the first multiplatform "managed availability" solution of its kind to hit the high availability marketplace. It contains a uniquely architected design that addresses the need for a comprehensive approach toward managed availability in a heterogeneous server environment. It is due out mid-year of 2003, and Vision Solutions is currently looking to foster new business partner relationships with organizations that wish to learn and implement the ORION solution.

High Availability and the Virtual Workplace

Why is a multiplatform "managed availability" solution so important these days? Consider this paradox: As hardware and software has become more error-proof, the reach of IT resources has been constantly stretched further and further out from the central organization, making information resources available to an ever-widening constellation of service points that extend across the global IT infrastructure. Information systems no longer function on a single server platform, no longer exist in a single database, and no longer reside in a single geographic location: Resources are scattered, disembodied, fragmented, and defused across a virtual universe in which all an individual requires is an access point to plug into, and he can obtain service through the global Internet infrastructure.

Yet, each service point in this virtual environment is also one more potential node of failure, making the task of managing the availability of the entire system that much more complex. Thus, managing the availability of those information services has become the bread and butter of day-to-day IT operations departments that live in the 24x7 paradigm of virtual resources.

For these organizations, downtime is not really an option: Their businesses rely upon the information infrastructure that channels transactions and information through the system. Hospitals, financial institutions, telecommunications organizations, and many others are not only consumers of vital information, but also purveyors of critical services to external and internal users. When the information service becomes unavailable--due to unscheduled or scheduled downtime--these organizations are hurting their clients and customers.

What Is Managed Availability?

Managed availability is an IT science that constructs pathways by which an organization can plan and manipulate its information resources so that downtime--as perceived by the users of the system--is invisible. Critical information processes are preserved by carefully mapping and monitoring the flow of data through the system, and when circumstances require, these services are automatically rerouted to other resources that will carry the load.

In small to medium-sized IT shops, managed availability is often confused with the subject of disaster recovery. And indeed, disaster recovery is an integral part of keeping IT services available. But it's how a disaster is measured that identifies the difference between the need for traditional backup and recovery techniques and the need for ongoing availability management.

For instance, some shops might address the issue of keeping IT services available through one or more relatively benign strategies: Clusters of failover servers and routers, mirrored disk drives, auxiliary storage pools, and replicated databases are all tools available to solve generalized or specific requirements for availability. The science of managed availability in these shops is in knowing how the systems are being used and planning for the eventuality of scheduled downtime or the unscheduled service interruption due to equipment failure or software error. In these shops, downtime is often viewed as a nuisance rather than a catastrophe, and the cost of service interruption is usually measured in IT minutes or hours.

However, in a 24x7 environment that deals with critical infrastructural information resources, downtime has a real financial bottom line: Each moment of lost communication with the information system can be equated to a financial loss, as customers or clients turn to other resources for their service needs. Or, in the case of hospitals or emergency services, lost access can represent real human tragedy, downtime can become a cataclysmic event, and the impact on the overall organization can be measured in thousands or millions of dollars, even in intervals as brief as an IT millisecond.

A Different Mind-Set

Managed availability in these critical environments requires a different mind-set about IT resources. These resources need constant monitoring, with well-mapped critical paths and alternative resources in standby readiness. And when a piece of the information system puzzle comes unglued, the managed availability system itself identifies the problem, notifies the human monitors, and--if necessary--reroutes the demand that is being placed upon that information service to a safer resource. So, a fully configured managed availability system is not merely a disaster recovery plan. Why? Because in these critical environments, micro-disasters are occurring all the time, and each micro-disaster contains the germ of a tragedy. Managed availability in this realm is an information service in itself, scanning the environment, spotting the potential bottlenecks and disasters, warning the operator, and switching the users over to a more secure service.

That's why a managed availability offering such as Vision Solutions' ORION is becoming so important: This product offers the potential to extend the critical infrastructural services of managed availability across multiple operating system platforms, to create a robust, transparent multiserver safety net.

ORION: A Different Approach to Heterogeneous Availability

Vision Solutions says that ORION is the first cross-platform/multiplatform managed availability product to come into the market. It is modular in structure, meaning that an organization does not need to implement every feature of its architecture on every server touched by the solution. Its architecture is designed around a "server engine" paradigm in which each operating system platform--OS/400, Windows, Linux, etc.--is running an ORION monitoring and management engine. These engines--written in a cross-platform language--communicate with one another across a communications channel, constantly exchanging information about their individual environments and information flow.

Tapping into this communications channel is the ORION operations monitor, residing on a separate machine, which acts as a control console for the human operator. It receives the current status of those machines within the system and allows the operator to control the resources within the overall system. When a problem is perceived by one of the ORION server engines, alerts are passed through the communications channel, and other ORION server engines are notified. Based upon preconfigured rules, these other server engines can automatically react to remedy the traffic flow or resource constraint, invisibly managing the crisis until IT resolves the issue. Of course, the ORION operations monitor is also simultaneously notified of the problem, and the operator can override or direct the resource routing, based upon other requirements.

What makes the ORION solution unique is the level of service that is provided across multiple operating systems and the ORION approach to the issue of multiplatform support. Other past solutions by some vendors have attempted to build customized interfaces to pre-existing services within each server's operating system. But, as each operating system provided varying levels of availability management, the results often did not provide control transparency.

By comparison, ORION is the first multiplatform-based software solution that enables IT to predictably manage the functional availability of servers, data, and applications across an enterprise, regardless of platform. Its functions include data integration across disparate databases as well as managed application and server availability within both homogeneous and heterogeneous environments, including multisystem coordinated failover and recovery. Its initial release is said to support OS/400, Windows, and Linux, but there are indications from within Vision Solutions that it intends to extend the functionality to Sun Solaris and Unix.

According to Vision Solutions, individual modules of functionality can be added and customized as required, and this modular architecture makes the system highly scalable in ways that had previously been beyond the multiplatform server enterprise.

Vision Solutions says that ORION will be available to the market in mid-2003, and it is using the time now to recruit and train new business partners to implement the ORION product and its services in the marketplace. If you're interested in becoming an ORION implementer or if you need more information about this product, you should contact Vision Solutions directly.

A New Constellation for Managed Availability

The Orion of Greek myth was said to be so powerful that he was raised into the night sky with his hunting dogs as a constellation to herald the search for better resources. Perhaps the ORION of Vision Solutions will herald a new time in our virtual workplace as well, enabling our information resources to continue as beacons of light despite interruptions in the firmament, glowing steadily, ready for our use, always available in a truly manageable form.

Thomas M. Stockwell is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries solutions providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, on the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..