Unified storage: Case studies

Posted on December 09, 2010


By Drew Robb

December 9, 2010 -- Unified storage has been gaining traction recently as end users put different workloads on a single storage platform. Vendors such as EMC, NetApp, Pillar Data Systems, Reldata and many others are pushing unified storage systems that combine block (SAN) and file (NAS) functionality and multiple networking protocols..

Kansas-based First State Bank & Trust recently purchased an Axiom unified storage system from Pillar Data when the bank experienced a doubling of storage requirements over an 18-month period, to a total of almost 4TB.

"We saw value in the concept of unified storage to support our virtualized environment and keep pace with rapid growth,” says Harry M. Wheeler, Jr., senior vice president at First State Bank & Trust. “Moreover, we saw additional value in Pillar’s approach to unified storage, which applied Quality of Service capabilities to ensure the highest levels of performance for our most critical applications, without having to worry about resource contention. This enabled us to consolidate storage on a single platform while still having plenty of room to scale as needed.”

When Wheeler first joined First State Bank & Trust, most of the bank’s data was on a mainframe. Over the years, however, applications spun off to a networked environment. File servers stored vital banking applications, such as check imaging, remote deposits, customer inquiries and online banking. The bank needed a plan that would enable rapid restoration of servers and file data in the event of a disaster. Aside from the need to strengthen its disaster recovery (DR) plan, Wheeler also wanted to virtualize 13 servers with the goal of increasing available capacity and decreasing TCO.

The bank worked with Choice Solutions, a technology integrator in Overland Park, KS, to evaluate storage options, including systems from EMC, Pillar Data and other vendors. Wheeler says that many of the vendors favored multiple systems, as opposed to a unified storage platform such Pillar’s Axiom. Wheeler also liked the Axiom’s ability to set priority levels for applications, as well as the system’s ease of use and tuning.

“Our network manager, who oversees the SAN, really appreciates the ‘set it and forget it’ operation of the Axiom,” says Wheeler, “and it was built from the ground up to support a virtualized environment.”

The bank purchased a pair of Axioms with 5TB of capacity (which can scale to more than one petabyte).

The move also improved the DR side of the bank’s business. In previous DR testing, it took up to five days to recover all systems because the bank needed to complete laborious restores of all file servers. Now, says Wheeler, thanks to the combination of Citrix XenServer, Pillar’s Axiom and real-time replication software from InMage, the bank can complete a full recovery test in two hours.

With more useable capacity available, the virtualization project has been completed. One result was the elimination of 1.5 racks of equipment in the server room.

While First State Bank did not choose EMC’s unified storage platforms, Pittsburgh Technical Institute (PTI) did. PTI is a private career college with two locations in Western Pennsylvania. It provides associate degree and certificate programs to more than 2,000 students through seven schools of instruction.

PTI’s selection process boiled down to EMC versus NetApp for its 99% virtualized VMware server infrastructure. EMC’s Celerra is now the central element of PTI’s unified storage architecture. The organization bought one Celerra NS-120 with 30 450GB Fibre Channel drives, 15 600GB Fibre Channel drives and six 70GB solid state disk (SSD) drives.

“We wanted flash [SSD] for its tremendous read I/O potential as the VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure [VDI] is a very read-intensive workload,” says William Showers, PTI’s supervisor of application programming. “Using flash allowed us to realize far more VDI instances running on a given number of disks.”

PTI's EMC Celerra NS unified storage system leverages SSDs for VMware virtual machines (VMs) and virtual desktops, and Fibre Channel drives for student files, media serving, Blackboard distance learning, and SQL Server and Exchange applications. Using VMware vSphere, PTI has virtualized 99% of its server infrastructure, with ten physical VMware servers running 300 VMs. VMware View enables PTI to provide 100 virtual desktops to faculty and administrators. PTI also uses Clariion CX3 disk arrays for VM backups and Clariion AX4 arrays for storing security video.

“In addition to performance, the EMC solution offered measurably more simplicity, efficiency and flexibility,” says Showers. “We were particularly pleased with Celerra's file compression with data deduplication, multiple RAID options, and support for both 8Gbps Fibre Channel and 10Gbps Ethernet. EMC's extensive integration and alignment with VMware also played big into our decision.”

Prior to this project, PTI already had an aging Clariion CX3-20 that was out of space and out of warranty. Other problems included IT staff having to come in after hours several times each month to perform basic maintenance such as firmware patches.

Concurrent with the EMC upgrade, PTI used VMware to consolidate approximately 75 physical servers down to only ten servers.  Instead of using the old machines, the company invested in newer models as VMware required a lot more memory. The new server hosts have between 32GB and 96GB of RAM.

Since its upgrade, PTI no longer needs IT staff present at night to replace failed servers or perform routine maintenance. If a server has trouble, it goes into maintenance mode and automatically moves all of the VMs to another server until someone from IT arrives at the start of the day to resolve the issue. Overtime hours are down considerably.

“With VMware on shared storage, someone from our department can remotely move the VMs off a given physical server, update or repair it during normal business hours, and then move the VMs back on,” says Showers.   

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

Related article: “The state of unified (block and file) storage”

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