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Green House Data adds patching automation to its software segue

Green House Data's Beekeeper patch automation product is a component of the managed IT and advisory services company's differentiation-via-software approach.

Green House Data's work with a grocery store chain inspired the company to create a patching automation product that has nearly 100 customers.

The managed IT and advisory services provider learned its customer, Wegmans Food Markets, a supermarket company based in Rochester, N.Y., was encountering challenges patching multiple Microsoft Exchange environments. Each environment was patched weekly, making for an arduous cycle.

"They didn't have a weekend where they were not doing patching," said Rory McCaw, president of Green House Data's enterprise advisory services.

Green House Data, with headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyo., worked with Wegmans to look at the potential for automating some of the steps the grocer would typically take prior to patching. Pre-patch checklist items might include, for example, determining whether a server is in a pending reboot state and looking for conditions, such as Windows Management Instrumentation corruption or low disk space, that would lead to a patch installation failure.

Green House Data created a tool to automate the remediation of such patching obstacles. The original iteration of the patching automation software used Microsoft System Center Orchestrator, the software company's workflow automation product.

Green House Data eventually redeveloped the tool, wrote its own orchestration engine and productized the offering under the Beekeeper brand in 2015. The product's name comes from the incessant data center hum.

"Every time we walk into a large data center or server room, it sounds like bees swarming back to the hive," McCaw said.

Software segue

Green House Data's foray into patching automation is part of a broader product initiative at the company. McCaw said the company has brought eight products to market thus far, including Beekeeper.

"I think it was important for us to develop a way ... to differentiate ourselves amongst our competitors," McCaw said of the software lineup. "Bringing a product to market demonstrates an additional set of skills and knowledge."

Other channel partners are also developing intellectual property amid the growth of ISVs as an alternative channel. Vendors such as Cisco and Microsoft are encouraging partners to differentiate through intellectual property.

I think it was important for us to develop a way ... to differentiate ourselves amongst our competitors.
Rory McCaw President, enterprise advisory services, Green House Data

Running a software operation within a traditional services company requires some adjustments, however.

"It was definitely a different mindset and requires a different way of managing and organizing things," McCaw said. "There was a bit of a learning curve there."

But Green House Data is able to draw upon its internal DevOps skills and experience in automating its services business, he added. In addition, Beekeeper has its own dedicated development team and product management group.

Standing out from patching management software

While software may help differentiate service firms, Green House Data also aims to differentiate its patching automation software.

Other patching tools do a great job of scheduling the delivery and installation of patches, McCaw said. Those patching management software products can also initiate the restarting of systems once those patches have been installed.

But some enterprises prefer to patch their complex systems manually, primarily because they believe it gives them better control over which systems are patched and when, McCaw noted. He cited the example of an application distributed across four servers. If the application team wants to patch one server at a time, they will often do so manually since patching management tools don't let technicians define patching in a sequence, he said.

Beekeeper, in contrast, allows "you to patch sequentially and automatically drain connections to the server, take it out of the load balanced array and patch it then test it before introducing it back into the array," McCaw explained.

In another nod to complex IT operations, Beekeeper provides automated patching for high-availability applications including Exchange, RightFax, Windows Server clusters, SQL Server, Hyper-V, Cognos and Lync. Beekeeper supports those applications out of the box, but other applications can also be supported, McCaw said.

For such applications, Beekeeper lets organizations automate server patching tasks other patching tools ignore, both prior to and after patching, according to McCaw.

"One of the biggest reasons for patch failure is that a server is in a pending reboot state," he noted. "It needs to be restarted before anything else can be installed. Beekeeper runs a pre-patch check to look for this, and, if detected, it reboots the server and then calls on SCCM, [Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager], to install the patches."

For high availability applications running on a cluster, Beekeeper can migrate the workloads running on node one of an 8-node cluster to the other seven nodes. The tool, at that point, can drain all connections coming into node one and then automate the removal of that node from the cluster with no impact to application users, McCaw said.

"Beekeeper can then call SCCM to install the necessary patches and manage the reboot of the server. Beekeeper can then call SCCM again after the reboot to check if there are any remaining patches that require installation."

McCaw said Beekeeper updates occur at least semiannually. An upcoming release will include support for SQL Always On availability groups. That feature will automate the shifting of workloads from one SQL instance to another, so a database can be taken offline for patching without affecting availability, he noted.

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