Agencies Tame the Data Storage Beast

Agencies Tame the Data Storage Beast<@VM>Consolidating Missions<@VM>An Early Pioneer<@VM>A Look Ahead

By Jon William Toigo

For the past year, storage area networks have been all the buzz within the data storage industry. Promising unprecedented levels of flexibility, scalability and manageability in data storage, SANs have captured the attention of information technology professionals in business and government alike.

In the government space, Kelvin Womack, principal for KPMG's Federal Practice in Washington, believes the refocusing of attention on centralized storage and enhanced storage management is the culmination of several trends. In both civilian and defense agencies, growing use of distributed client-server computing has increased the complexity of systems and the knowledge requirements for those who manage them, Womack said.

"The IT department is strained for resources, and the cost and complexity of management needs to be considered with regard to storage as well as systems," he said.

Storage area networks have grown in popularity because they promise to simplify management and enable fewer IT personnel to manage greater amounts of storage cost-effectively, he said. Additionally, growing use of electronic business applications by government organizations requires greater performance from storage. Back-end legacy systems storage must be shared efficiently with front-end Web servers. Data must move efficiently, and tolerance for delays and downtime has shortened to nil, according to the consultant.

Ideally, storage area networks provide a means to pool resources through the centralization of disk arrays and tape drives into a network built behind a special SAN hub or switch. In a fully realized SAN, end users and applications, regardless of their server or desktop operating system, will be able to access the common storage pool and obtain the resources necessary for their work.

However, SANs will not provide such heterogeneous connectivity for at least two years, according to Jim Porter, president of storage industry trend watcher Disk/Trend Inc., Mountain View, Calif. Every storage subsystem vendor has its own version of a SAN, and all of the storage software vendors are coming up with their own software for SAN management, the analyst said.

For the next one to two years, Porter said: "You can expect SANs to be homogeneous [dedicated to a particular vendor's operating system and products]."

Despite the state of technology, Porter said, first-generation SAN products are attractive to IT professionals for the immediate benefits SANs deliver. Porter would hear no dissent on this point from the Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Dave Losh, computer specialist for NASS in Washington, said storage area networks fit with his organization's drive for "improved performance, additional security and increased flexibility." The mission of NASS is to provide meaningful, accurate and objective statistical information and services on the agriculture industry to U.S. citizens.

In 1998, NASS initiated an effort to replace aging servers and server-attached RAID storage arrays with a new configuration.

"We had maxed out what we could handle in terms of server memory and storage, and we wanted to completely retool our [architecture], including networks, servers and storage, to meet the needs of about 350 end users," Losh said.

Funding for the replacement architecture was postponed until this year, Losh said. Implementation began in earnest following a decision to reorganize the NASS headquarters office and to consolidate another Agriculture Department research branch, as well as the Commerce Department's agricultural census branch, into NASS operations.

"USDA acquired the branch of the Commerce Department that performs the agricultural census. That plus the consolidation of another NASS division into our headquarters location added approximately 160 users and some significant security requirements to our [IT infrastructure]," Losh said.

The postponement was well used, however, Losh said. "The SAN market was not very mature when we started. As the dates were moved back, we were able to analyze what products would work for us and work with Novell Netware."

The new architecture includes a Novell network running atop switched 100BaseT Ethernet to the desktop, a gigabit Ethernet between switches, and the consolidation of six servers onto three more-capable Dell PowerEdge servers.

Losh said the Agriculture Department's network, systems and storage acquisitions were made via General Services Administration schedules. The Agriculture Department performed the integration work itself. Losh declined to reveal the cost of the project.

Xiotech Corp.'s Magnitude array was selected as NASS' SAN solution. "It fit our needs," he said. "Initially, we configured the storage array with 20 18-gigabyte drives in a mirrored RAID 5 configuration. That means about 180 gigabytes of usable disk storage. That is double the disk storage space we had before. Plus, the array delivers the flexibility to add another 12 drives in the future as our requirements change."

The rollout of the new configuration is expected to be complete in October. He noted that the performance of the Xiotech "SAN-in-a-box" solution was meeting all of the NASS test requirements, and that management software provided with the unit enables both easier maintenance and enhanced security.
Xiotech of Eden Prairie, Minn., is among the pioneers of SAN technology, and many analysts, including Disk/Trend's Porter have kind words to offer about the privately held company. The success of the vendor's Magnitude arrays in a crowded field of established vendors, ranging from IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., and EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass., to Sun Microsystems Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., and Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston, reflects how SAN technology has leveled the playing field.

Najaf Husain, president and chief operating officer for storage management software maker W. Quinn Associates Inc., Reston, Va., said many vendors are scrambling to capitalize on a growing SAN market in the federal space.

"We are seeing more and more activity in the federal government [that favors SANs]," Husain said. "Clearly, there is an effort to centralize the management of storage, to establish a centralized point of control."

Husain said centralized management does not necessarily translate to purchasing expensive, mainframe-class storage arrays.

"But it is important to consider the soft costs that follow any storage acquisition. The soft costs are management costs. You need to make sure the files that are being stored are of an appropriate type to be included in storage. You need to allocate storage by user or application. You need reports on utilization," he said. "You need to use storage efficiently."

That, Husain said, takes time, personnel and software. One industry analyst claims that for every dollar spent on storage, an organization needs to anticipate spending $10 to $12 annually in storage management.

Growing storage demands and accompanying increases in management costs factored heavily into the decision to deploy SAN technology at the Fort Snelling, Minn., regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Patricia Percy, computer specialist for the service. The office ultimately chose Xiotech's Magnitude product.

The Great Lakes-Big Rivers Regional Office is responsible for fulfilling the mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service across eight Midwestern states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. The region manages 1.2 million acres of refuge land and water on 46 national wildlife refuges and nine wetland management districts. The region also manages six national fish hatcheries, nine fisheries stations, 10 ecological services field offices and 18 law enforcement field offices.

Performing these tasks requires the processing and storage of a lot of data. In 1998, Percy said, the regional office began modernizing systems and networks, first upgrading its combined Ethernet and token ring networks into a Fast Ethernet (100BaseT) network operating Novell Netware, which was completed in June.

At the same time, the office consolidated five Novell servers, comprising a mixture of 486 Dell, Compaq and Everex servers into one high-powered Compaq server cluster running Novell 4.11. Data storage for the office's more than 200 end users, which originally was distributed across the five servers, also was consolidated, Percy said.

The upgrade project cost the agency $150,000 for the network improvements, servers and storage equipment.

"We chose to detach storage from the servers to give us flexibility in use and to enable future storage growth without having to add additional servers," Percy said. Finding a cost-effective way to accomplish this objective proved a challenge.

"We have a lot of applications located on local desktop hard drives, but we wanted data to be stored centrally," Percy said. The largest files the office must store are from computer-aided design systems and geographic information systems. In addition, the office is looking at deploying Lotus Notes and several off-the-shelf databases that will increase its storage demand, Percy said.

With the assistance of Floyd Child, a contractor from Affiliated Computer Services Inc.'s Government Solutions Group, requirements and specifications were developed and published nationally. Percy said a number of quotes were received that ran the gamut in price and topology.

"We chose the Xiotech Magnitude SAN solution based on technology, Novell certification and price," Percy said. The proximity of the vendor to the office was a plus: They assisted in the installation of hardware and software in a temporary data center following the purchase.

The Xiotech array, according to Child, was configured with 10 9-gigabyte disk drives, with one drive maintained as a standby and the balance set up as a RAID 5 array. "We have about 72 gigabytes of usable storage that will go online in 1999," Child said. Of this capability, about 75 percent is used.

"We have plenty of empty drive slots available," Percy said. "Plus, while 9-gigabyte drives were standard when we ordered the array in September 1998, typical drive sizes today are 40 gigabytes each, so there is a lot of room for growth, virtually unlimited."

The SAN is logically positioned behind the Compaq Server Cluster, according to Percy. If a server failure occurs, the backup server continues communicating with the Magnitude SAN without interruption.

Commenting on the bid evaluation process, Percy noted some vendors proposed storage solutions with "astronomical price tags" that knocked them out of contention for the Fish and Wildlife Service project. There also was significant variation in what vendors regarded as a storage area network.

Storage area networks continue to labor under a veil of confusion as standards are lacking, and some vendors have opted to recast virtually any storage array product as a SAN, according to analysts and industry officials .

John McArthur, senior analyst with International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., said this confusion likely will persist for the next several years until industry consolidation is complete.

"The entire storage market is roughly $30 billion, and there are over 60 suppliers of SAN storage products. Compare that with the server market, where the dollar volume is about double the size and there are half as many suppliers," he said.

There will be more acquisitions and mergers in the SAN space over the next few years. "We are already seeing this happening with EMC Corp.'s acquisition of Data General and its CLARiiON Storage Division, and IBM's acquisition of Mylex Corp. [a manufacturer of disk and array controllers]," McArthur said.

He and other analysts said that, for now, the best approach is the one taken by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service: Deploy SAN products incrementally and in response to specific application demands. That way, when and if a vendor establishes a de facto industry standard for the technology, the costs to integrate with the standard will be reduced.

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