Automating the Data Store

Smart software can automatically allocate data to the most cost-effective form of storage. But will it work for you?

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While IT shops have struggled for years to implement ILM, several users of automated data tiering say they're realizing significant benefits with software that's currently available.

Sandee Sprang, director of IT for South Carolina's Office of the Attorney General, set up a storage-area network with automated tiering using Compellent Technologies Inc.'s Data Progression about five years ago, because she didn't have the staff "to determine what type of records needed to be on the most efficient storage for fast access." Determining the policies for the Compellent system took about four hours, and "the benefits have just been phenomenal," she says, noting that storage management time dropped from as much as 24 hours a week to two hours.

Compellent's block-level tiering also helps maximize disk usage, she says, and it "doesn't mean the entire case file is migrating up and down the tiers" -- just "the one brief you're accessing or one transcript from 15 years ago."

Brian Nielsen, technology systems architect at the Salk Institute's Computational Neurobiology Laboratory, works in a scientific computing environment with highly variable workloads and therefore prizes the real-time analysis and retiering provided by Avere Systems Inc.'s network-attached storage appliances. Before he tested, and eventually purchased, the appliances, he says, it was a challenge to move data and to identify which data to move.

Unlike earlier ILM products, which retiered data only sporadically and did so based only on when it was last accessed, the Avere system can "account for many different file I/O attributes and dynamically tier [data]" as application demands change, says Nielsen.

Brian Bosserman, network and systems operations manager at Foster Pepper PLLC, a law firm in Seattle, is experimenting with EMC Corp.'s fully automated storage tiering (FAST) technology on the EMC Celerra NS-480s he runs in his firm's Seattle and Spokane offices. He estimates that it will save 10% of the time he now spends monitoring his servers' storage demands and then planning and executing the retiering of virtual machines among them. With FAST, he says, he hopes to let EMC's Rainfinity File Management Appliance do the monitoring and moving "based on policies I give it."

Installing FAST "was very straightforward," says Bosserman. "It comes as a VMware [virtual] appliance. I just imported the FAST appliance, started it up as a Unix box, then got into it through the Web interface and managed it and set it up from there."

However, automated data tiering does require some upfront effort classifying data and setting the policies that determine when certain types of data need to be moved (based on age of the data, application performance, or legal and regulatory requirements). Conventional wisdom says all that work crippled earlier "tiering" approaches such as ILM. But at least one major user -- Intel Corp. CIO Diane Bryant -- is putting a formal ILM process in place before looking into automated tiering. Bryant began an ILM effort last year to cut Intel's 35% compound annual growth in storage needs, and so far 40% of the company's structured data and 30% of its unstructured data is governed by ILM.

Sanford Coker, Unix clinical team lead and senior Unix administrator at Weill Cornell Medical College, is starting to use 3Par Inc.'s Policy Advisor in his development and test environment. Installation was easy, he says, and creating each policy takes only about 30 minutes, although tweaking them for optimum performance takes another week or so. He says his "very conservative" estimate is that he can cut his use of Fibre Channel disk by about 25% by moving data onto less-expensive, higher-capacity SATA disk.

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