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First American Consolidates Globally for Virtualization and Collaboration

July 26, 2007

By Terry Timm Moos, News@Cisco

For the past seven to eight years, the company has focused on its mission to become the largest provider of business information. In business since the 1880s, First American is diversifying its approaches, acquisitions, and strategies to become a family of information companies, providing services to the largest banking and mortgage companies in the U.S. and beyond.

As part of its enterprise strategy, First American is building and consolidating to dual data centers with brand new infrastructures, and streamlining telephony with the help of Cisco and AT&T professional services. First American's unified communications system is improving employee productivity, increasing the level of service to customers and partners, and has minimized the expenses of local support. The state-of-the-art infrastructures support the consolidation and standardization goals.

Evan Jafa, Chief Technical Officer of First American, and Rick McGough, Vice President of Telecommunications and IT Procurement, spoke with News@Cisco about the consolidation.

Information need powers First American's engine

The First American Corporation (NYSE: FAF), a Fortune 500 company founded in 1889, is America's largest provider of business information. Combining advanced analytics with its vast data resources, First American supplies businesses and consumers with information products to support life's major economic events: getting a job, renting an apartment, buying a car or house, securing a mortgage, and opening or buying a business.

First American's family of companies operates within five primary business segments: Title Insurance and Services, Specialty Insurance, Mortgage Information, Property Information, and First Advantage. With 2006 revenues of $8.5 billion, First American has approximately 2,100 offices throughout the United States and abroad.

The need for information is the engine that powers the First American Corporation, and the business has evolved in terms of its operational strategies. The company used to be much more decentralized in business operations and support functions, such as IT, so that 24 months ago, you would have found three large IT organizations.

Business Drivers:
Cost-effectively scaling for business

In order to scale the business, First American needed best-in-class technologies, with consolidation and standardization of infrastructures to facilitate efficiencies throughout the organization. The business driver was to achieve cost savings and process improvement. Risk management, security standards, and disaster recovery were also top priorities.

The overall objective of consolidating the entire First American infrastructure into two data centers was to have common storage fabrics, so that every bit of data taping to the data centers is duplicated to the other side. "We want to be able to present any piece of data to any place, at either facility, through a common infrastructure," said Evan Jafa.

"Once we were given the direction of consolidation, standardization became the top item for us. At that time, we decided to go to brand new data centers," said Jafa. The company wants to ensure that these environments are standard, because the plan is to have the systems running live at both locations.

First American had a lot of work to do to create a seamless, single organization, according to Rick McGough. "The centers evolved their own operational approaches."

"We needed assurance that we had the appropriate design configuration and view of what a highly reliable infrastructure would look like, in order to support the strategies of the company. At that point, we went through the due diligence of the process, and we partnered with Cisco and AT&T," Jafa said.

The complexity of having to consolidate many, many systems and many, many business units into a common process poses its own challenges. Designing a world-class infrastructure to support a Fortune 300 company required special skills. "We wanted to tap in to the expertise of Cisco to assist us in our plans," Jafa said.

Technology Solution:
Cisco Unified Communications adds SAN technology and VoIP

The storage environment at First American has two primary data centers, one in Santa Ana and one in Dallas. They merged several islands together into a common A&B fabric, with SCIP (Secure Communications Interoperability Protocol) running between both centers, primarily for replication between the sites. They describe the data centers as 'a LAN that's become a SAN,' extended thousands of miles away. First American had Cisco 9216s, primarily to do the ICSB in the previous data center. Switches now in place include 9509 and 9513 at the core, 9140, 9216, and blade centers HP 9120.

SAN (storage area network) is a high-speed special-purpose network that interconnects different kinds of data storage devices with associated data servers on behalf of a large network of users. SANs support disk mirroring, backup and restore, archival and retrieval of archived data, data migration from one storage device to another, and the sharing of data among different servers in a network.

With Cisco SAN consolidation solutions, simplification of SAN topology layouts comes from either connecting smaller SAN islands to form larger connected fabrics, or from using newer, intelligent fabric virtualization technologies, such as Cisco Virtual SANs (VSANs) embedded in the MDS 9000 SAN Switch Family, to build virtual fabrics on top of a common physical fabric to reduce physical SAN build-outs, and thus, lower costs. The deciding factor for First American was the ability to introduce SAN IVR, and the integrated IP SCSI. IVR was a critical factor.

First American decided to go with MBS equipment exclusively, with the ability to do VSANs and inter-VSAN routing. Most of the VSAN usage is for application separation, allowing the IVR to share extensive resources, such as tape drives.

"Just about everything that we do—every decision that we make—is in support of this model of providing standardized storage of the service to our businesses, rather than boxes and ports and SAN fabric to the business," said Jafa.

Global consolidation of telephony infrastructure reduces costs

The traditional operating telephony model at First American involved thousands of phone systems and miles of wiring of local offices, requiring huge support resources, both internal and external. Today, Cisco and AT&T are helping with consolidation of the telephony infrastructure. First American is now data center-based, with central telephony service provided to all the global locations.

"We no longer have the need for local support or local wiring for local purchases or maintenance," said Jafa. "So we do not to have to address issues such as the elimination of redundancy of our WANs that have a separate voice versus data network."

There has been a tremendous impact in the reduction of the cost of the voice communications. "I think it's not just our example, but many other examples of consolidation that I have talked to other CIOs and CTOs about," said Jafa. A surprise of consolidation and one of the most significant benefits has been the reduction of telecom costs."

The Cisco team was instrumental, working side-by-side with First American IT staff on the design and configuration, plans for appointment, as well as equipment staging and consolidation. "Cisco and AT&T were part of the team and instrumental in the completion of this very difficult project," said Jafa.

Seeing improvements through consolidation, standardization

First American is seeing the results, and overall, management processes are improved. Instead of managing hundreds of sites with hundreds of circuits, there are now two lines for all customers, all users, and all traffic goes through the routers. Telephony management is also easier. As far as security management, consolidation gives First American the ability to efficiently apply new security standard to all systems—with one common approach. The company can also benefit from being a large volume purchaser, with central contract management.

Changing business processes enhances reliability

First American is focusing on how to bring more commonly-shared utility services to the various business units to simplify, standardize, and run processes more efficiently. The company is addressing issues such as disaster recovery systematically or automatically, rather than as an afterthought. This will provide a higher level of reliability. "Not having seven different approaches to the same issue also goes a long way to contributing to more reliability," Jafa said.

"Once we have a standards approach to design and architecture, processes are understood, repeatable, and easily manageable," said Jafa.

Jafa believes that now there is a pre-understood notion of standard architectures that everybody is moving toward. "We don't have to redesign the wheel every time," he said. This adds tremendous value because it is taking a lot of effort and costs out of the processes. Standard processes are now used for all network infrastructures, voice infrastructures, LAN and SAN infrastructures. "Every one of those has its own value," he said.

Depending on the technology, the value has been varied for the business units. Voice over IP (VoIP) introduced dynamic call center routing to the businesses, which was something that had been requested for a long time.

McGough advises that other organizations do their pre-planning and put a lot of thought into the process work, before actually getting engaged in the implementation. "You can only base assumptions on some of the literature—you have to really prove out some of the things for yourself," he said. "It would be helpful to engage with folks who have actually implemented some of these things. It helped to work with longtime partners, Cisco and AT&T, who have the visibility into other implementations," McGough added.

Supporting global strategies for First American

IT's role has been to bring in the appropriate solutions, come up with creative answers, and find competitive ways of looking at the delivery of information for the company. "Information is our business, so to separate IT from the business and information is not really possible," said Jafa.

With these initiatives, First American has gone from a sufficient server room to a first-rate data center with the highest availability and reliability. The company is getting world-class support, 24/7—that it could not otherwise afford.

Everything IT does is in support of the company's strategies. "The company has outlined very specific strategies-growth, consolidation, and globalization—so anything and everything that we do is in support of insuring that the business strategies and IT approaches are very much alike," said Jafa.

At some level, this is not purely a data center design project, which started three years ago, but also a design of a brand new network of voice, data, and video for the corporation. Prior to this consolidation, there were seven different networks in the company, and now there is just one. Previously, there was no VoIP and now there are in excess of 10,000 devices deployed globally. "The better description of what we have accomplished is to provide fundamental infrastructures for the corporation—not just for the data," said Jafa.

By bringing together data, voice, video, and messaging under the umbrella of collaboration, customers and employees can have the highest possible productivity. This positions First American to be in a very advantageous place compared to its competition.

Terry Timm Moos is a freelance journalist located in Seattle, WA.

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