From the Midst of the Undetectable
- From CIO Digest, July 2009 Issue ( Download This Entire Issue in PDF)
At the center of the island of Sardinia, Italy, there is a huge hollow created by the collapse of a cave that is only visible after passing through a small crevice in the rock. Located in the hollow are the remains of an ancient village, Tiscali, that likely provided inhabitants of the island with undetectable shelter during the period of the Carthaginian invasions in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Secluded and isolated, virtually no communication took place with the inhabitants who took refuge at Tiscali.
In 1998, following the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, Renato Soru elected to give his new startup the name of Tiscali, seeking to deconstruct the earlier silence and isolation of the 2,000-year-old hollow. Indeed, in an ironic twist of events, Tiscali S.p.A. serves as a multi-faceted communications conduit, breaking down communication barriers between individuals and organizations with a breadth of services that include Internet access, voice, media, and B2B solutions.
Genesis of an Italian Internet revolution
Some of the earliest moves in the Internet space in Italy actually originated in Sardinia. The first commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Italy, Video On Line, launched from Sardinia in 1995. And when Salvatore Pulvirenti was recruited by Tiscali in 2000 as the CTO for Foreign Markets, he brought an extensive resume with him that included overseeing systems and services operations at Video On Line.
Pulvirenti arrived at Tiscali after serving as the vice president of Technical Operations for tin.it, Telecom Italia’s ISP. His charter was to build a standard infrastructure that would scale to support the company’s rapid growth while providing a flexible platform that would evolve with ever-changing business requirements.
Opportunities create challenges
As CIO since 2003, Pulvirenti explains that IT must enable business growth—both through existing and new channels—and also deliver a high level of service to customers. These have evolved with the current economic climate; cost and complexity are even more critical. “We’ve always worked under the principle of doing more with less, but this has become even more important for us in the current economy,” he says. “We are looking at our technology environment in terms of consolidation, cost reduction, and efficiency in managing the infrastructure.”
An underlying tenet of the IT team has been to retain a consolidated infrastructure—whether server platforms, storage systems, or applications. And Tiscali’s aggressive acquisition strategy created various challenges for Pulvirenti and his team, as they had to develop migration paths for the infrastructure of each acquisition.
This laid the foundation for Tiscali, initially a regional telephone operator and ISP, to begin offering services to business customers—ranging from sophisticated IP-based services to a number of Internet solutions. These include everything from managed services to custom builds, based on customer requirements. Tiscali currently provides 20 different B2B services, each with service level agreements (SLAs). Pulvirenti cites the email platform as an example. “We’ve consolidated email onto a common platform that allows us to manage everything from a standard toolset,” Pulvirenti says. “We not only have the mail customers within the Tiscali Group, but we also manage mail solutions for other ISPs and business customers totaling 13 million.” All of this adds up to more than 30 million messages per day—or 10 billion annually.
At the same time, however, these business opportunities create technology challenges. Pulvirenti pinpoints data center optimization and security management as critical areas. “The most important challenge for us right now is to meet regulatory compliance around data retention and integrity for ourselves and our customers,” he says. Indeed, this is creating exponential storage growth for Tiscali. When the company moved into its two 3,500 square meter data centers in 2003, only about 15 percent of floor-space capacity was used. However, less than 15 percent now remains available, and data storage is a major reason for this rapid consumption, according to Pulvirenti.
Regarding security, Pulvirenti notes that “the magnitude of security and threat management may not have been fully understood several years ago.” This is no longer the case today. “We see 100,000 different security attacks every week,” he explains, “and this requires a robust security infrastructure and well-defined security policies.” As a result, following Tiscali’s move into its new facility in Cagliari, Italy, in 2003, Pulvirenti and his team have built out not only what he describes as a passive security infrastructure but also an active security infrastructure that includes corresponding countermeasures.
Security in the form of ancient nuraghes
Truncated, beehive-shaped towers called nuraghes, dating back before 1000 BCE, dot much of the countryside of Sardinia. Thought to number more than 30,000 at one point, the approximately 8,000 that still remain likely served as lookouts for each tribal territory, enabling them to proactively identify threats while fortifying themselves when under attack.
In a similar way, Pulvirenti and his team have constructed their own nuraghes to address the ever-changing and constantly growing threat landscape. They opted to outsource security monitoring and management to Symantec Managed Security Services. “The more we grew, the more support we needed,” Pulvirenti recalls. With the help of Managed Security Services, Tiscali has been able to retain its security staff at the same headcount while improving the overall security posture. “We don’t have a large security team,” Pulvirenti says. “This is one of the key reasons we decided to out-task security monitoring and management to Symantec.”
Tiscali relies on Symantec Managed Security Services to monitor several network devices, including firewalls and routers, and to provide incident analysis, escalation, and rapid response. Beyond the enhanced security posture, Pulvirenti estimates that he was able to avoid hiring or reallocating up to 10 IT staff to monitor and manage security by out-tasking the function to Symantec Managed Security Services.
Endpoint security is also a concern for Tiscali, which has been using Symantec AntiVirus to protect its varied endpoints—from the client to the data center—since its launch in 1998. And while the Tiscali team hasn’t been able to upgrade to Symantec Endpoint Protection due to a restructuring of business operations, they are looking forward to doing so, citing the advantages of a consolidated endpoint security infrastructure and mailboxes and tens of millions of messages each day, it is more than a concern; it is a business-critical requirement. Without the right messaging security infrastructure in place, Tiscali and its customers could quickly become overrun with spam and viruses. Indeed, Pulvirenti reports that more than 80 percent of incoming mail is spam, and the percentage continues to rise.
Endpoint security is also a concern for Tiscali, which has been using Symantec AntiVirus to protect its varied endpoints—from the client to the data center—since its launch in 1998. And while the Tiscali team hasn’t been able to upgrade to Symantec Endpoint Protection due to a restructuring of business operations, they are looking forward to doing so, citing the advantages of a consolidated endpoint security infrastructure and centralized management console as key reasons.
Communicating freely with messaging security
Messaging security is a concern for any IT organization today. However, for a media-communications company such as Tiscali that provides messaging services to millions of mailboxes and tens of millions of messages each day, it is more than a concern; it is a business-critical requirement. Without the right messaging security infrastructure in place, Tiscali and its customers could quickly become overrun with spam and viruses. Indeed, Pulvirenti reports that more than 80 percent of incoming mail is spam, and the percentage continues to rise.
To address the challenges associated with messaging security, Pulvirenti and his team elected to implement Brightmail in 2000, and the relationship has continued to mature since Symantec’s acquisition of Brightmail in 2004. Based on his experience using the Brightmail solution in roles before coming to Tiscali, Pulvirenti made the determination from day one of his arrival that “Brightmail would be Tiscali’s messaging security solution.”
The initial solution involved Symantec Brightmail Gateway, with Tiscali subsequently adding Symantec Brightmail Traffic Shaper and Symantec Business Critical Services. Brightmail Traffic Shaper blocks spam—as much as 50 percent—before it reaches Tiscali’s network. As this reduces the strain and requirements on the network, the solution has helped Pulvirenti and his team control the growth of their Critical Path messaging environment, enabling them to avoid the additional acquisition of as many as 50 Critical Path boxes. Storage of those spam messages is also avoided; Pulvirenti estimates that up to 400 terabytes of storage space has been saved to date as a result of the solution and the drain on network bandwidth slashed by 700 to 800 percent.
|< Previous Page||Page||4||of||4|
Revealing the next-generation data center
Various challenges come with managing a data center spanning 7,000 square meters that houses 3,000 servers and as many as 40 storage systems. Maintaining a standard infrastructure is the starting point for Pulvirenti. “We consolidated our infrastructure to a common toolset in 2001, and we have worked to maintain this standard,” he says. “It allows us to focus on a common build, driving operational efficiencies yet providing the flexibility to quickly address new business opportunities.”
As part of this process, Pulvirenti elected to consolidate around three different vendors for the data center—Sun Microsystems for the server platform, Network Appliance for storage systems, and Symantec for storage and availability software. “We have strategic relationships with all three of these vendors in the data center,” he says.
Pulvirenti and his team migrated back up and recovery from EMC Legato to Veritas NetBackup in 2001 with the help of Symantec Consulting Services. They sought a solution that would support multiple server platforms—Sun boxes based on Solaris, Linux, and Microsoft Windows—and would seamlessly integrate with Network Appliance storage systems. “We had exponential data growth and wanted to institute a 12-hour recovery point objective (RPO),” Pulvirenti notes. “Not only does NetBackup allow us to backup our entire data center environment, but it also allows individual end users to backup and recover their own data.” In total, Tiscali has more than 350 terabytes of storage and backs up as much as 100 terabytes each day.
For the management of their storage environment, the Tiscali IT team uses Veritas Storage Foundation. A key factor for its selection is its support for multiple server platforms, which has allowed the Tiscali team to add Linux and Microsoft Windows systems without making any changes to their storage management software. In addition to the flexibility benefits, Pulvirenti reports that his team has been able to maintain storage utilization rates at 80 percent or higher using Storage Foundation for volume and file system management.
The nature of Tiscali’s business dictates that certain systems deliver 24×7 uptime, and Pulvirenti and his team rely on an integrated solution of Veritas Cluster Server, Veritas Storage Foundation for Oracle RAC, and Oracle RAC. “We cluster the business-critical components of our infrastructure for high availability,” Pulvirenti says. “This includes applications for customer service, billing and financial support systems, and other management systems.” In addition to meeting high availability requirements, the solution allows the Tiscali team to do system maintenance without stopping any services by simply failing over to the active cluster.
A challenge rich in opportunity
The standard technology toolsets Pulvirenti and his team have developed are delivering both immediate and long-term benefits. When asked to identify some of the initiatives on the horizon, Pulvirenti notes that process automation and cost are the primary drivers in the near term. As the world economy moves beyond the current recession, Pulvirenti predicts a re-emergence of multimedia services, such as IPTV, to gain momentum, and the IT infrastructure he and his team have built will be a critical enabler of these efforts.
Sardinia is a land rich in history and culture, simultaneously presenting challenges and opportunities to inhabitants and conquerors. And Tiscali stands firmly in this fertile heritage.
“Tiscali has given not only me—but the entire team—a great opportunity,” Pulvirenti concludes. “There are few instances in Europe where consolidation of this size has been possible. While we had no benchmarks when we began, we have established a baseline for others seeking to tackle projects of similar scale who want to achieve comparable results.”
Patrick E. Spencer (Ph.D.) is the editor in chief for CIO Digest and the author of a book and various articles and reviews published by Continuum Books and Sage Publications, among others.