We quickly became comfortable with the Onix team’s expertise and the way they could easily explain what needed to be done and why. 

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Google Cloud Platform

Published June 30, 2019

For more than 35 years, North American industrial railyards have relied on Railserve, Inc. for on-site, contract services that support customer production and new growth with innovative solutions. The Atlanta-based company uses its own locomotives and employees to safely move railcars within industrial, manufacturing and production plants.

Its parent company, the $8B Marmon Group (a Berkshire Hathaway company), provides the financial support that allows Railserve to invest in customer growth by providing the services they need. This includes switching, logistics, locomotive service, track maintenance and more. To do this, Railserve needs to be well staffed and managed and using up-to-date processes and technologies.

As the largest provider of in-plant switching and associated services in North America, Railserve relies on its computer network to keep its 1,000+ employees at more than 70 rail operations connected to customers and each other. Its division offices needed to reliably communicate and collaborate anytime, from anywhere. The company also required a better backup-and-disaster-recovery solution for its data in the event a failure occurred.

Facing Infrastructure Challenges

The company is a leader in the use of technology to improve safety and efficiency for its customers, and its executives knew Railserve’s internal infrastructure needed to be able to support their growth and be prepared for today’s security challenges. Challenges included...

  • Legacy hardware and software. The company’s aging hardware didn’t support newer versions of VMWare or Windows, and support for its aging Windows Operating Systems had been deprecated. This left the environment vulnerable to malware attacks.
  • Performance. The hardware also didn’t provide adequate memory, CPU and I/O to accommodate growth. This issue also contributed to latency issues.
  • Accounting system upgrade. Railserve needed to upgrade the existing version of MS Dynamics and was unable to do this with the infrastructure it had in place.

Launching a Transformation

Modern infrastructure was a must. It was time for a digital transformation. Railserve leadership researched solutions, weighed options and decided to pursue cloud migration instead of refreshing or purchasing new licenses for the current environment.

”We’ve always controlled overhead cost by maintaining a lean corporate support staff but engage experts with a similar mindset where needed to be sure we are able to consistently support our operations and our customers,” explains Jerry Schadel, Railserve’s Director of Information Technology.

Onix, a longtime Google Cloud Premier Partner, stepped in to guide the company to determine the right path to take in this transformative journey.

When Google Cloud initially shared Railserve’s story with Onix, it first appeared the team could do a simple “lift-and-shift” migration. This common migration technique replicates on-premise apps in the cloud without costly, time-consuming redesign. However, a pre-sale evaluation of the server environment at Railserve revealed the job would be larger than that.

“We found all virtual machines needed to be upgraded,” said Mike Botte, sales engineer at Onix. “After looking further at Railserve’s server environment, we identified the opportunity to deploy Google Cloud Platform (GCP) so the company could upgrade all of its existing Windows software without needing to purchase and manage licensing from Microsoft.”

Deploying to the Cloud

That’s when the hard work began. Onix established site-to-site VPN connectivity between the three Railserve corporate locations and the GCP migration project. The team then implemented a new version of Windows virtual machines within GCP and extended Active Directory to the cloud.

Once achieved, Onix migrated all file data to the cloud and worked with Railserve’s Microsoft Dynamics vendor to implement the new accounting system and migrate all data.

Onix broke the project down into four, one-week engagements. This allowed adequate time between site migrations for data replication, connectivity baselining and application testing. The entire project was completed in approximately five weeks from initial planning to the final database migration.

Because Railserve required remote connectivity for users traveling or working from home, Onix implemented a secure gateway solution using OpenVPN Access Server. This would allow users to establish a secure encrypted session to resources hosted in GCP without exposing unnecessary and insecure access ports to the internet. It limited the overall attack surface of the GCP environment — and provided Windows domain authentication and authorization.

Improving Backup Disaster Recovery

Company officials also wanted to increase backup reliability and gain improved disaster recovery in place.

“I needed sleep!” Schadel recalls. “The ever-changing and sophisticated attacks had me concerned about our ability to stay secure and if needed, recover timely.”

Google Cloud Platform gave the company a simple backup-and-disaster-recovery strategy that would save significant budget dollars compared with the point-in-time backup solution they had been using from a local IT company.

The Onix team provided point-in-time backups using Cloudberry backup software and also offered disaster recovery through GCP image-based VM restoration. This feature gave Railserve instance recovery in any GCP region, something company leadership wanted and needed. It wasn’t, however, a full solution.

The approach allowed Railserve to spin up fully functional replicated servers in its GCP environment so they could begin processing requests in a timely fashion should a primary production server fail.

The specified products couldn’t provide automatic snapshots, another Railserve request. To address this deficiency, Onix developed a process that automates GCP’s snapshot feature with a sufficient retention period. This helps control spend related to the growing snapshots in GCP.

Automated VM snapshots also gave Railserve a safeguard against ransomware-oriented threats and encryption vectors due to an inherent roll-back feature. This was a primary concern for Railserve.

“Railserve now has the ability to recover from a disaster within hours as opposed to days,” noted Joe Sallman, GCP Consultant at Onix. “Their restoration ability is so much more reliable now. People sleep better knowing their data and core infrastructure are secure.”

Leaving Managed Services to the Experts

From the start, Schadel says he quickly became comfortable with the Onix team’s expertise and the way they could easily explain what needed to be done and why.

“They paid close attention to our budget goals and worked with us to control costs,” he says, “If additional security costs arose, they quickly made me aware of it.”

Because of this two-way communication, Schadel enrolled Railserve in Onix’s Managed Services Provider program. Designed to free up in-house IT time to focus on important tasks instead of reactive troubleshooting and extinguishing “fires,” Onix’s experienced support team stepped in to oversee and maintain Railserve’s cloud IT infrastructure.

This means Onix assumed 24/7/365 responsibility for monitoring, managing and resolving issues in Railserve’s cloud environment, allowing the company to leave cloud concerns to the experts — and to focus instead on the business at hand, keeping trains on the rails.

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