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How Virtualization Increased IT's Value At One SMB

Server virtualization and improved disaster readiness didn't just solve Acorda Therapeutics' growing pains and compliance-related headaches. IT changed from support jockeys to strategic technical advisers on critical projects.

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Acorda Therapeutics overhauled its approach to infrastructure and disaster recovery out of sheer necessity. In doing so, IT reaped an unintended benefit: it became more important to the business.

The small and midsize business (SMB) biotech company develops treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS), spinal cord injuries, and other neurological disorders. It has grown four-fold in the past five-plus years, from 85 employees to 350 today. That put an increasingly untenable burden on the company's servers and other infrastructure. Add to that the compliance requirements of a healthcare-related business, and it was apparent that IT wouldn't be able to keep up.

"Along with the growth, we're becoming a little more bureaucratic, as any company does when it grows," said Josh Bauer, Acorda's senior manager of network operations, in an interview. "There was a constant need for [new] systems to be deployed and, essentially, an upgraded infrastructure."

[ What's in your mobile tech plan? See 3 Mobile Trends SMBs Might Be Missing. ]

Bauer and his three-person team were fielding regular requests that required a new server or other deployment in say, a day or two. That wasn't possible in its physical environment unless the right hardware--with perfectly matching specs, of course--just happened to be sitting around. Acorda made the decision to switch to server virtualization, opting to run VMware. Today, its server infrastructure is 100% virtual. (They're still running physical desktops, but Bauer said a VDI makeover is a key initiative for 2013.) Now, a new deployment is a matter of an hour or so, Bauer said.

At the same time, Bauer's team was hamstrung by its disaster recovery (DR) practices. Acorda operates in a heavily regulated industry; among other requirements, it must run full DR simulations four times per year to prove it can bounce back from an IT disaster.

"Four times a year doesn't sound like much, but it was tying up my whole department," Bauer said. The old world included daily backup processes and a vendor to pick up and store tape offsite, among other steps. On the heels of the server virtualization project, Acorda streamlined its DR approach with a combination of VMware's Site Recovery Manager and EMC's Recover Point.

The financial ROI is the stuff of vendor sales pitches. From a hardware perspective, Acorda would have spent $1 million or so in servers and related costs to keep up with its growth, according to Bauer. Instead, it spent $65,000 on the physical servers needed to operate its virtual infrastructure. On the DR front, Acorda had to make an initial investment of $50,000. But it now spends $40,000 per year on DR instead of $100,000 annually in its previous tape-based environment. Bauer notes the company achieved ROI on the DR project in less than a year, and will continue to save $60,000 annually.

Yet beyond its initial problems solved and the corresponding cost savings, Bauer found an unplanned benefit: his network ops team has evolved from a strict "break-and-fix" function to a higher-profile, strategic role in the business. The success of the virtualization project, in particular, helped the group move along "this long path of the company trusting IT more than just a support shop," Bauer said. "They thought of IT as: 'My computer's broken, I don't know what happened, fix it'--and that's it, there's nothing beyond that."

The cost savings and speed of the virtualization project gave Bauer's team significant credibility within the organization. The DR project further fueled that momentum, and the business started to view IT as subject matter experts rather than support jockeys. "Now, the company really trusts us," he said. "That wouldn't have been possible if we hadn't shown our strength in these prior projects."

Bauer or a team member is now included early on in almost any important project or meeting as "technical advisers." The strategic role often extends beyond technology to other areas; IT is seen as having expertise in vendor selection, for example, and might be consulted even if it's non-technical in nature.

The fact that Bauer's team no longer spends much time maintaining infrastructure also allows it to move more aggressively in areas such as security and project management. "[The extra time] also enables us to be proactive and see what the best practices are, rather than always scrambling to respond to break-fixes," Bauer said. As a result of reallocating resources and IT's elevated role inside the company, Bauer now has a much broader view of the business and what's coming down the road.

"I know what's going to happen before it happens, as opposed to in the past when IT wasn't looked at as a strategic department and we would find out at the last minute: 'by the way, we acquired such-and-such company' or 'by the way, we're going to need a such-and-such system,'" Bauer said. "Now I have several months to plan and I can make sure there's enough storage available, I can have the VMs built ahead of time, and that helps us not be scrambling around so much."

SMBs have saved big buying software on a subscription model. The new, all-digital Cloud Beyond SaaS issue of InformationWeek SMB shows how to determine if infrastructure services can pay off, too. Also in this issue: One startup's experience with infrastructure-as-a-service shows how the numbers stack up for IaaS vs. internal IT. (Free registration required.)

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