Servers with a Smile: Houlihan’s Restaurant Adds Fibre to IT Menu

To remain competitive, Houlihan's Restaurant Group realizes that they need to manage their data extremely well. Houlihan's IT staff is charged with the critical task of ensuring the safety of the company's data. From daily food, liquor and labor costs, to year-on-year analysis of sales, the company relies on their data to be successful.

In addition to operating more than 100 Houlihan’s Restaurants, Houlihan’s Restaurant Group features a series of other specialty restaurants that put the company among the top 10 casual dining businesses in the United States. To remain competitive, Houlihan’s realizes that they need to manage their data extremely well. Carol Webster, Director of IT Technical Services, says, "Data is how you run your business and make your decisions. If you don’t have the information, you make bad decisions or you don’t make decisions at all, or you don’t make them quickly enough." Houlihan’s IT staff is charged with the critical task of ensuring the safety of the company’s data. From daily food, liquor and labor costs to year on year analysis of sales, the company relies on their data to be successful.

The Trend Du Jour

It is the analysis of this accounting and operational data, the credit card reconciliation, gift certificate redemption, guest counts and daily sales of each menu item, that help the company remain competitive. "We’ve shifted the business from a once a month kind of collection and reporting activity to weekly and daily kinds of activities and analyses," says George Popson, CIO and Vice President of Information Technology. "This data allows us to react quickly and to recognize trends immediately, whether it is a trend that might be going the wrong way, and which needs further research, or a trend that is going the right way which we should capitalize on immediately," he says.

In addition to inputting data, kitchen managers access information from the corporate databases when they arrive in the morning. This means that some servers need to be accessed 22 hours a day. With the time difference, and restaurants closing on the West Coast at 2 a.m. and kitchen staff arriving on the East Coast at 7 a.m., the backup window is a very narrow two hours. In addition, Houlihan’s wants to keep one month of data online.

Houlihan’s corporate headquarters has several servers, all various HP NetServer models. Currently, they have 235 GB of data, and this number is growing rapidly. Houlihan’s had been using one DAT Autoloader to manage the backup process, but they soon realized that they were outgrowing the autoloaders and using them beyond their intended functionality.

At the time, they had three fewer servers and less data, however it was no longer an efficient use model for their needs. It took more than 12 hours to perform the backup, which meant that partial backups were occurring on open files and Houlihan’s was not achieving reliable backups. Restores took too long, and the management of the whole process became overwhelming. "We’d come in and just cross our fingers and look to see if we had a backup. It was very unreliable," recalls Webster, "My staff and I were routinely coming in on weekends, and checking it, doing everything we could to ensure that we had a decent backup. I would estimate that we had one person spending at least two days a week on the backup, and that left only one person to handle the problems that arose in a normal day."

Houlihan’s was using a 100VG network but with the constrictions from various protocol requirements, data was only able to move through the network at 18 Mbits/sec. With this restriction in mind, and Houlihan’s desire to use an automated backup solution, there were two alternatives that HP presented to Houlihan’s. The first identified the necessary steps Houlihan’s would need to take if they were to continue to work within the boundary of their existing network structure; the second proposed an alternative.

Current Configuration: A La Carte Solution

The first proposal was to install two dedicated backup servers onto the current network to streamline the backup process. HP proposed that Houlihan’s install two HP NetServer LH3 servers and attach two 15-Slot, 2-DLT-7000 drive HP SureStore DLT Libraries to each server. With the necessary network switch, this configuration would have enabled Houlihan’s to pull 18GB per drive per hour and Houlihan’s would have been able to backup 198 GB in two hours.

However, this alternative had limitations. First, there was no room for growth. Houlihan’s, like most organizations, anticipates rapid growth in the future, and this scenario would need adjustment six months down the road. Second, this configuration would require considerable rerouting and re-switching – something Houlihan’s did not want to do unless it was absolutely necessary.

The second alternative was to install a Storage Area Network (SAN). The SAN creates a dedicated backup network that is separate from the main network. Demands on the main network are reduced, providing increased bandwidth availability for other functions. In addition, previous bandwidth constraints inhibiting the backup process are eliminated.

It was recommended that Houlihan’s install a fibre channel arbitrated loop to handle the SAN traffic. Fibre channel provides greater speed and distance and a SAN topology provides far greater control and manageability of the backup and recovery network. "A SAN is basically local backup across the network," says Bruce Coxe, the HP Technical Specialist working with Houlihan’s. "It allows Houlihan’s servers to talk directly to the backup device across the fibre."

"We’ll Take the SAN, Please"

Houlihan’s chose the second alternative and installed one HP SureStore DLT Library with two DLT-7000 drives and 15 slots, with a Fibre Channel SCSI bridge, and Computer Associates ArcServeIT software. CA’s ArcServeIT software provides fibre channel support into a SAN environment. In addition, the software has enhanced functionality, easy administration and advanced media management, all features that Houlihan’s had not received with their previous software solution. Implementing this solution saved Houlihan’s more than $90,000 – the cost of the two dedicated backup servers and the three additional DLT Libraries.

With the new SAN solution, Houlihan’s receives reliable, consistent backups every night. Daily incremental backups are easily completed within the two-hour backup window. Full backups are completed in four hours, which is down from 12 hours with three less servers. Once the SAN solution is fully implemented, Houlihan’s expects to further decrease their full backup completion time to one hour. The improvement has made life easier for the IT staff. "When they tell me that they did a restore for somebody, I don’t have to worry that they got the right data or that the data was actually there," says Webster. In addition, the IT staff no longer needs to monitor the backup closely and now has time for better and faster customer service. And weekends are not spent in the IT room.

"To me, automated backup means you don’t have worry about it. It is set to go, and it is going to go," says Webster, "We have other things to do, problems that come up, big projects – and the backup is not something that we can afford to work with every day. We can now set the job and have it recur consistently, with minimal intervention."

"Houlihan’s has a very small IT staff, and it is important for us to have an automated solution," adds Popson. "It provides us with a method to stretch our limited resources. We no longer have people watching backups and making sure they are happening properly. Those people are now able to troubleshoot problems that come up in the organization. The reliability of the HP Library is also very important to us. We don’t have people sitting in the computer room 24x7, although our organization operates continuously. We need equipment that will reliably support us around the clock, and that is what we have with the HP DLT library."

– Karla Winter is the Tape Library Product Manager for HP’s Storage Systems Division. She can be reached at, or call (970) 635-6828.