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First Option Improves Hosting Services With Collaboration

Paul Fuller
Paul Fuller President, First Option—Photo by Steve Craft

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Customer: First Option
Headquarters: Cave Creek, Arizona
Business: IT hosting services
Challenge: Growing its hosting business while still focusing on other aspects of the business
Solution: Partnering with mindSHIFT, another IT hosting service provider, to develop a lower-cost, more easily managed and geographically dispersed hosting environment
Hardware: Several IBM Power Systems servers

The one thing most successful companies have in common? Foresight—whether that’s offering diversified solutions, improving back-end processing, cultivating an increasingly differentiated customer base, or improving IT capabilities before their competitors do.

Such is the case with First Option. Originally a two-person programming shop, it has morphed into a multipronged business whose portfolio now includes two Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions—the system monitoring-tool IBM i Watchdog from First Option and a cloud-based financial package called First Option Financial—an application-modernization consultancy, and remote application hosting service.

“We started working with some larger customers that wanted not only software services, but also someone to handle their hardware and manage their IT,” recalls Paul Fuller, president of First Option. “Cloud computing wasn’t even a term back then, and especially not on the IBM i platform, but we saw hosting as a great growth opportunity.”

And indeed, it was great, so much so that First Option decided to bring on a partner, mindSHIFT, a subsidiary of Ricoh America, to help support the hosting side of its business. Now, First Option and mindSHIFT are so tightly intertwined in that aspect of the business that it’s hard to tell when one begins and the other ends, which may, in fact, be the point.

“Our clients require a private cloud in a SSAE 18 SOC I Type II facility data center. And we include backups, 24-7-365 monitoring, except during scheduled maintenance time, and problem escalation. We also provide carrier diversity via multiple OC-48, OC-12 and GigE networking transmission-rate standards. So, although First Option might be the de facto face of our partnership, mindSHIFT is indispensable to making us, them and our customers successful. It’s a very mutually beneficial relationship,” Fuller remarks.

Direct Relationships

When it was founded in 1995, the then-Northboro, Massachusetts-based First Option specialized in RPG and SYNON programming for customers running on earlier iterations of AS/400. But as time went on, that two-person programming team evolved into something much more, selling IBM hardware and consulting with customers on both their application needs and overall IT environments.

In 2001, the company’s consulting division began working with customers to web-enable their RPG applications by creating Java* technology-based applications and deploying them on a variety of HTTP and application servers. These projects ranged from basic XML document interfaces to more complex web services to feature-rich applications presented on the web.

Around the same time, First Option also began looking into application hosting, in large part due to customer requests. One company, according to Fuller, had lost all of its IT staff and was desperate to find someone to take over its entire IT environment. First Option accepted that challenge in what was one of its first forays into running another company’s IT infrastructure.

“We walked in and essentially took over their IT environment. There was one guy that was going to stay three weeks to give us a little background, but we really had to step up and pull it all together,” Fuller says. “This relationship then became an IT service model, where we were offering both consulting services, whether for development or application maintenance, and the management of their hardware and networks. This evolved to a point where other customers were handing that type of work over us.”

Initially, First Option hosted client’s applications and other computing resources on its own IBM Power Systems* servers. In addition to building a data center to support this, it also sought out other like-minded organizations to similarly host these systems. This worked well while the company’s hosting client base was small, but it eventually became an impediment to future growth.

For example, First Option would have to either expand its existing data center or build additional ones, with both options being too expensive to implement. Additionally, the company didn’t support the geographical distances or diversity required in many hosting situations. Its backup computing center was located a mere 100 miles away from its core facility.

“This really didn’t cut it for customers who were expecting wider system placement, including nationwide,” Fuller remarks. “We simply didn’t have the money or resources to support what would be involved in that, such as additional servers, data centers, system managers and everything else that goes along with it.”

By partnering with a dedicated hosting company, First Option would have an opportunity to broaden its hosted services with regional data centers and the infrastructure necessary to support it. It also needed an outsourcing partner that could maintain 24-7-365 service level agreements (SLAs), one with the knowledge and ability to support networks and Power Systems for applications in the cloud.

Just as important, Fuller notes, was the desire to work with a single vendor. “We wanted to work with just one vendor. That was very hard to find. When I was shopping around for a partner, some would do networking, some were doing systems management. Nobody, though, seemed to be doing it all—including having direct relationships with companies such as Cisco and IBM—which would pretty much allow us to hand everything off to our hosting partner, so we could focus on sales of our hosting services and SaaS solutions, as well as other aspects of our business,” he says.

Safeguards

After an exhaustive search, First Option came across mindSHIFT, an IT-outsourcing, cloud solutions company. First Option would contract with mindSHIFT to manage its hosting services while also ensuring its clients were treated as well as they had been in the past, complete with the personal touch to which they had become accustomed.

Once First Option decided to work with mindSHIFT, the latter quickly and deliberately began the management-migration process, including networking, firewalls, and IBM i, AIX* and Windows* servers. The process took less than a month to complete and is, even now, constantly being fine-tuned to best serve First Option’s customers.

“We don’t have to waste time calling here, there and everywhere because mindSHIFT already has relationships with these vendors.”
—Paul Fuller, president, First Option

Over the course of the migration, mindSHIFT assumed the management of First Option’s data centers and its production and development centers. The relationship became even closer when First Option asked mindSHIFT to act as a beta test site for IBM i Watchdog, the monitoring tool First Option had developed to keep on top of its own systems prior to moving that responsibility to mindSHIFT.

First Option had built the tool to act as a simple dashboard that made the monitoring of Power Systems servers and IBM i functionality more accessible to users with varying levels of training working in diverse operating environments. The dashboard was also engineered to alert users to essential items that need to be addressed, via email alerts sent to the appropriate personnel.

mindSHIFT was so impressed with the solution that it incorporated it into its own system-management regime. Watchdog, as well as First Option’s cloud-based financial software, are now available as a SaaS offerings to general IBM i users.

Thanks to its partnership with mindSHIFT, First Option has a more robust hosting infrastructure, including OC-48, OC-12 and GigE networking standards, to offer its clients. As Fuller explains, “Disaster recovery (DR) was always an issue for us. System-to-system backups extended only 100 miles or so. But we knew mindSHIFT had multiple nationwide, interconnected data center locations that solved this issue. And they offer many different solutions in terms of DR. You can go all the way from real-time replication—or high availability—between sites or backing up into the cloud. We take advantage of all of this and give our customers a variety of choices to safeguard their data and applications—which helps us meet our 24-7-365 SLAs.”

A somewhat more intangible but equally important benefit of the First Option-mindSHIFT relationship is that mindSHIFT is solely responsible for contacting vendors should anything come up, whether a networking, storage or systems issue. First Option simply has to get in touch with mindSHIFT and everything falls into place at that point.

“This is remarkably convenient,” Fuller adds. “We don’t have to waste time calling here, there and everywhere because mindSHIFT already has relationships with these vendors. We’d just be doing what they can do much easier than us.”

When it comes to Power Systems running IBM i, Fuller is a believer. “I think it’s the best platform to run a business on,” he says. “It’s reliable. It’s mature. And there’s a reason why the banking and insurance industries, among many others that demand 24-hour operations, use it. You just can’t kill the thing. This makes it perfect for our customers.”

A Breadth of Experience

Foresight: It’s one word that describes an attribute of many successful businesses, and First Option is no exception. By being proactive rather than reactive, it has broadened its fortunes year after year, evolving from a two-person development shop to an application-modernization consultancy to a system-monitoring and financial services application developer to an application- and data-hosting company.

Thanks to the company’s relationship with mindSHIFT, everyone benefits—including First Option’s customers, who are realizing lower costs and improved efficiencies when compared to other hosting services.

“Building additional data centers would have become too costly for us to justify,” Fuller says. “Now, however, we have lower-cost hosting centers, the breadth of experience of mindSHIFT, as well as their hosting expertise. I can throw them into any situation and they’ll come out with a long-term solution—and they’ll do it quickly. That was hard to find when I was shopping around, but find it, we did.”

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at jjutsler@provide.net.


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