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Replicating Canada-based Database Support at a New Facility in the U.S.

Energy Services | Managed Services, Network Infrastructure Services

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A leading natural gas company engaged TEKsystems to identify and implement an effective service-based delivery model to support its entire database environment in a newly created IT department.

The client is a producer of natural gas, natural gas liquids and oil, based in Canada with operations across North America. TEKsystems has been a trusted partner of this company since 2003.

Organizations that aim to transition to or build a separate database may be driven by the need for server replacements or upgrades, server maintenance, database software upgrades or even by external factors such as regulatory changes that may impact the way their business operates. Whether the organization is implementing a consolidation effort or establishing a database environment at a new location, the task can be a significant undertaking. Data from the original environment needs to be mapped and incorporated into the design of the new environment. The data, equipment and resources may possibly require a physical migration. Once the transition has taken place, it is important to ensure the new environment is configured appropriately in terms of availability, connectivity, capacity and performance. Data also needs to be verified to ensure effective translation into the new environment. Production and non-production (i.e., functional and non‑functional) databases should go through a cycle of testing to ensure systems are running properly, and backup systems should be readily available in the event of an unexpected system failure.

Often organizations lack the bandwidth, resources or expertise to facilitate a database transformation in-house. Working with a third‑party IT service provider can enable the transition to happen seamlessly with minimal interruption to day-to-day business activity. Risks such as user downtime can be costly, and as a result, these types of transitions need to happen rather quickly. With that, it often makes more sense to conduct some of the activities related to the transition during off‑peak business hours. And once the transition takes place, there needs to be ongoing support readily available in the event of a system failure. Bearing this in mind, outsourcing can enable businesses to maximize efficiency of time, resources and costs, while minimizing disruption of service. 

Oracle databases, SQL Server databases

With its IT department based in Canada, the client, a leading energy organization in North America, was feeling regulatory and tax pressures to draw a definitive line in the sand in terms of its business operations. Operations needed to be reorganized, including the establishment of a U.S. IT department. To ensure operations continued to run smoothly during this migration, it would be essential that the new department replicated the client’s Canada systems. A core focus area of the U.S. IT department was the client’s database operations. In compliance with the federal government, the database needed to be able to monitor and capture data and report on mission critical systems, business critical systems and regular operating systems.

The database group would need to support SQL Server and Oracle platforms; they would be responsible for physically moving the systems that were in Canada to the U.S. center and actually implementing the new servers, databases and services associated with those. TEKsystems would need to be able to help with production databases—or any database necessary to running the business, whether it be a means for measuring gas flow through a pipe, financial data, etc. The team would also need to support non-production databases, databases that are not critical to running the business such as staging and development environments used by the client’s engineers and geologists. 

While the energy client was certainly not in the business of doing IT, like most organizations, IT was a necessary component to keep the business running. And setting up operations, including database systems, in the U.S. was imperative to avoid significant risks and better monitor operations. But the client lacked the budget and internal expertise required to successfully establish the IT department, particularly the database, and sought third-party support. Concerned that a pure staff augmentation solution would not meet its requirements, the client searched for a more effective resourcing model that offered less ownership on the client and more outcome accountability to the provider. Frustrated with its existing process for hiring and managing IT consultants, the client wanted a partnership built on a true services structure so it could focus on its core business offering.

TEKsystems proposed delivering database support services to enable the client to complete the transition. To start, we would perform requirements gathering and analysis to define the client’s entire database environment and map the number of databases, their locations, sizes and the infrastructure of their associated servers. We would then develop a support model including the necessary resources and tools to optimize the database environment. 

TEKsystems would provide a team of database administrators (DBAs), a team lead and an engagement manager who would be responsible for supervising the team and communicating with the client regularly on the progress of the team. Our DBAs would be on-call after regular business hours and during weekends to ensure full coverage. The DBAs would resolve issues remotely or on site at the client, as necessary. In addition to this production support, TEKsystems would also provide non-production support, including:

  1. Perfective maintenance, or enhancements that would extend the functionality of the database

  2. Development support, such as planning, designing, modeling and database creation and/or modification that would support the client's development effort

  3. Data modifications or any potential execution of data manipulation language (DML) created or developed by the TEKsystems team

  4. Maintenance and support of non-production environments once the database goes into production

To monitor our performance throughout the duration of the engagement, TEKsystems would work with the client to establish key performance indicators and service levels, and define how they would be managed, reported on and assessed.

Because the client lacked the internal expertise required for this migration, support from a third-party partner was necessary. Initially, the client sought a purely staffing solution, seeking solely DBAs. TEKsystems offered a more bundled solution; not only did we have the ability to assemble the right team, but we also recognized where the client was trying to go and laid out a roadmap for how to get there. TEKsystems stood apart with this approach, as the client realized they wanted service-based support rather than headcount only. Ultimately, the client recognized TEKsystems’ strong presence and maturity in applications and data management services and selected us to provide database administration support for its current set of databases.

TEKsystems assembled a team of as many as eight on-site resources, including database administrators and a manager, who successfully replicated all of the client’s systems that were supporting their drilling operations in the U.S. This team was available and on-call outside of normal business hours, in order to support both production and non-production databases in Oracle and SQL Server. We provided management and administration of its Oracle and SQL environments with thousands of instances in each platform that interface with every aspect of the business, from sales and front-office operations, to finance and back-office operations.

Comparatively, TEKsystems has managed and maintained a stable environment in the U.S. at a lower cost than its previous staffing model in Canada. The client was very satisfied with our partnership, as our team consistently achieved 100 percent performance on established key performance indicators and has been doing so for approximately six years. We’ve also achieved the following metrics:

  • Database availability at roughly 99.99 percent for all production databases
  • Mean time for issue resolution:
  • Four hours for mission critical databases
  • Eight hours for non-mission critical databases
  • Call back time within one hour of a reported incident 

Soon after we were first engaged in this initiative in 2008, natural gas plummeted to the bottom of the market; prices dropped, and as such, the client had to do the same work with less resources. This meant that the biggest issues for the client were cost reduction and risk avoidance (i.e., ensuring systems are up and if a crash occurs, ensuring the systems affected are back online quickly and can recover from the disaster). Keeping the systems up was critical from a cost perspective. The client had to have the ability to produce a report for the federal government every three days. If they were unable to generate the required reports, steep fines would be incurred. 

Notably, we recruited, onboarded and trained our team. It is extremely difficult to find quality database administrators who are knowledgeable on both Oracle and SQL Server—especially with expertise in two or three different versions of the respective databases. In response, TEKsystems recruited experts in one platform, whether Oracle or SQL Server, then we onboarded and trained them on how to respond to incidents; we then cross-trained them on the alternate platform. We developed an onboarding handbook specific to database administrators and to the client environment; this enabled the team to learn and understand the client environment very quickly.

Our success with the database group was unique from what was happening with the rest of the client’s IT operations. Consider the infrastructure support group, which can consist of servers, network, VoIP or telephony, and various applications. The client had outside contractors working in these other areas. In terms of managing these groups—from the client’s perspective, they had a dedicated manager overseeing the activities that each of these groups was doing. With the TEKsystems database group, the client had a completely different experience. Because we provided a service-based solution, the client did not feel the need to make a one-to-one match between a TEKsystems manager and a manager from the client. We were providing all of the management from people, process and technology aspects of the service being delivered so the client didn’t need to have a person dedicated to overseeing our work. This was one of the contributions that the client truly appreciated about the service we provided.

In addition to keeping the lights on—making certain that the databases were staying up and running—TEKsystems provided real value as a partner. We focused on truly understanding the client’s business and business objectives throughout the lifetime of the project. We provided several key benefits:

Cost control

If cost control/reduction was a current priority issue, the database team took the initiative to explore ways to reduce costs—and not just by reducing headcount. For example, the database team facilitated a server consolidation effort to streamline the number of databases running on machines; now multiple databases can run on one physical server.

The database team also helped the client reduce their footprint inside the data center itself; as a result, rack space was freed up, and air conditioning, maintenance and license costs were reduced. We identified another opportunity for improvement when the client expressed concern for the amount of time required to bring an environment to the point where it can support their business needs. TEKsystems’ database team worked to shrink that time, going from approximately two to three weeks to just two days; we did this by identifying “hot” databases that were on standby from both the Oracle and SQL Server sides, to be able to support how fast their business was moving.

Minimized risk

We understood that reducing risk was another critical priority for the client. And we learned very early in the partnership that some of the processes we used from our model (i.e., Canada’s database operations) would not allow for bringing the client environment up quickly in the event of a catastrophic failure. Instead it would require days and sometimes even weeks. With the U.S. operations we built, TEKsystems ensured servers could be brought back up in a matter of hours.

TEKsystems also ensured that the database backups actually worked—another improvement from the client’s Canada operations, where back‑up testing was not conducted. On a monthly and yearly basis, TEKsystems would test every single database backup. We would simulate a fail database and bring up their database in a test environment to prove to the client that 1) the backups worked properly, and 2) in the event that a fail does occur, the database team can recover from it. Overall, the testing helped the client reduce risk and improved their ability to report back to the federal government. 

Additionally, the client had no documentation of the recovery process. Rather, a few key people who knew the process were relied on. To ensure more people understood the process and that it could be replicated in the event of a system crash, TEKsystems facilitated the documentation of the recovery process, which proved beneficial to both the client and our database team.

IT Service Management

Prior to our involvement, the client lacked maturity as it related to incidents and providing end-to-end services. We defined a process, instances and a method for the client to be able to record and track incidents, which subsequently enabled us to conduct proper incident management and problem resolution. Being one of the first truly outsourced operational components, our database team could set the bar and pace for the rest of the U.S. IT organization to follow. We introduced IT service management (ITSM) and ITIL® concepts and built processes and procedures to successfully perform database activities including trouble ticket support, administration, backups and recovery and monitoring. We continued to drive ITSM forward and as a result, other operational teams (e.g., networking, Unix and storage teams), felt pressure to follow suit in order to reach client expectations. This meant that the other teams had to hold themselves accountable to the same standards for managing their work to ITSM principles and best practices.

Before we implemented this, the client and its users had no real way to identify, report or track an incident. A user would report it, possibly days later. Incidents were not tracked or prioritized properly, so it did not matter whether the incident pertained to a mission critical or non-production database, all incidents got the same level of priority in terms of resolution. TEKsystems recommended an approach to monitor systems and be proactive with any type of incident that may occur in the environment. We interviewed stakeholders and users to identify and categorize database incidents, whether mission critical/ production or non-critical/non-production. We also defined metrics around those occurrences (e.g., mean time to resolution or mean time to repair incidents). TEKsystems developed a knowledge management database to keep track of incidents, problems, resolutions and workarounds for when we got an incident call. Ultimately, this drove other IT organizations to reevaluate their processes to stay on the same level as the TEKsystems database team.

Trusted partnership

The client had outside third-party staffing contractors supporting other areas of its U.S. IT organization. TEKsystems provided advice in making sure the client decision makers—who aren’t in the business of IT—were asking the right questions of their vendors. Our knowledge and expertise was provided not just pertaining to database operations, but in terms of IT overall, including anything from security to server needs, in addition to database needs. The client truly valued our partnership as it enabled them to more easily transition; TEKsystems helped the client every step of the way.

TEKsystems' ability to deliver consistent quality, top talent and a service-based delivery model drove the ultimate success of this long-term engagement:
  • Consistent quality. TEKsystems consistently delivered high-quality service year after year for more than six years. We developed and defined key performance indicators (KPIs) that allowed us to monitor and track performance over time. The TEKsystems team was able to mature those metrics with unbelievable consistency and accuracy. In fact, we were able to achieve 100 percent of the KPIs established. 
  • Talent. TEKsystems was able to secure top talent for this multi-year initiative, and the client believed in our people. At the start of this engagement, the client wanted to interview all of our database administrators. We tracked their service performance and over time, the client felt comfortable with our ability to source, retain, onboard, train and manage the right people. Eventually the client no longer had a role in our hiring process and trusted us to make the right decisions. This is very different than what other third-party vendors experienced and demonstrates our great track record of success; the client maintained close involvement in the hiring process with other vendors.
  • Service-oriented partnership. Our service-based delivery model enabled us to not only provide and manage the best talent required for this major project but also support the client by providing added value through our partnership. We offered flexibility with our contract, giving the client 40 hours of project-based assistance outside of a normal managed services contract; the client truly appreciated this kind of flexibility, which was different than what they were experiencing in Canada. Additionally, TEKsystems approached this engagement with team spirit, having open dialogue with the client from start to finish. This allowed us to gain trust and confidence from the client, and they would look to us for solutions to their business problems.
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