SANs Get Sensible

Until recently, storage-area networks (SAN) have gotten a mixed reception. Users have praised their performance and flexibility but criticized their cost, complexity and lack of interoperability. But new products based on current standards have finally begun to address those problems. And practitioners who have been down this road say that lower maintenance and support costs can quickly make up for the relatively high deployment costs for SANs.

But IT managers planning a deployment still face some key issues, and practitioners suggest moving cautiously and doing your homework.

Carefully working with vendors upfront and getting the right experts on board are critical success factors when installing a SAN. For example, MasterCard International Inc. had a good deal of in-house expertise but nevertheless brought in a consultant to help get its tape and disk SANs going.

MasterCard enlisted Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. and other external sources to help it choose Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC Corp. as the primary vendor for its disk SAN, says Jim Hull, vice president for computer network services at MasterCard's U.S. processing center in St. Louis. The tape backup SAN uses Fibre Channel switches from San Jose-based Brocade Communications Systems Inc.

A tape subsystem from Storage Technology Corp. in Louisville, Colo., backs up 160TB of online storage located in a series of EMC Symmetrix disk arrays and an IBM Shark Enterprise Storage Server. In all, approximately 195 servers access the SAN-attached data, including a half-dozen Enterprise 10000 servers from Sun Microsystems Inc., an IBM S/390 mainframe and network-attached storage devices.


Five Tips for SAN Survival

1. Mix and match: Better standards mean users can finally use the mix of Fibre Channel switches, host bus adapters and target devices that offers the best price and performance, rather than being locked into a single vendor’s offerings.

2. Put your house in order: To avoid compatibility issues, update all software to the latest releases and apply all patches—especially to operating systems—before beginning a SAN deployment.

3. Bring in experts for larger deployments: Even users with in-house expertise say using an experienced, outside consultant can pay dividends.

4. Smaller is easier: Turnkey, integrated packages and vendor-provided services may work fine for more limited deployments.

5. Go virtual: Storage virtualization software can ease management

but may have interoperability and performance issues.

The consultant helped Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard ensure that all of the gear would plug and play with its existing IBM Shark disk storage, management software from Tivoli Systems Inc., StorageTek tape subsystems and other components. The consultant got vendor representatives together for some tough meetings, Hull says. "He did not have ties to any vendor," he says. "He was my hip-pocket resource."

Getting all the components to work together was tricky, Hull acknowledges. "The standards in SAN technology are emerging as we go," he says. "The Brocade and [EMC] Connectrix switches were based on two sets of standards that really weren't standards yet. It looks like within the next year they will play together well, but at the time we did this SAN, they were not."

Continuing growth in data storage needs is pushing even cautious IT managers to consider SANs. OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc., a Dublin, Ohio-based provider of digital information to 40,000 libraries around the world, saw its data storage requirements increase by 900% in five years. Data on its Windows and AIX servers grew especially fast as OCLC added new databases and services for its members, says Jerry Lynch, division director for operations.

Seeking a way to accommodate that growth without adding IT staff, OCLC tied together the disk storage for its Unix and Windows servers and its IBM S/390 mainframe with a Fibre Channel SAN consisting of Fibre Channel switches from McData Corp. in Broomfield, Colo., along with IBM Shark and StorageTek V960 Shared Virtual Array (SVA) disk storage systems. In addition to acting as the primary online storage for production servers, the SAN backs up data on 1,200 PCs every night. The disk SAN manages a total of about 4TB of data.

The peaceful coexistence of McData, IBM and StorageTek gear is a tribute to industry standards efforts, Lynch says. "We can plug all three things together, and they won't catch on fire," he laughs.

"I had a Shark on the floor, but the best deal [to expand capacity] was to bring in a StorageTek SVA," Lynch says. "In the past, prior to the Fibre Channel standard, I would probably have been much more apt to put in another Shark. As it was, I was able to get competitive bids from two different vendors."

Regarding some users' complaints that SANs are tricky to get up and running, Lynch says, "You have to know what you are doing and have business partners and vendors who you can trust and who are engaged." But he says improvements in SAN deployment and administration tools are putting SANs within the reach of less-sophisticated companies.

"The past year has seen dramatic improvement," Lynch says, citing Houston-based BMC Software Inc. in particular. BMC's Patrol storage management and Mainview storage resource management tools, for example, look at storage from both a physical device and an application point of view, and that aids storage planning and administration, according to BMC.

Managing Interoperability

Bill North, research director for storage at IDC in Framingham, Mass., says storage networks are becoming easier to administer as storage and network management tools converge. For example, he cites EMC's recent introduction of its WideSky and StorageScope products, which not only monitor and manage EMC platforms but also include interfaces that allow connections to other vendors' storage systems.

Percentage of corporate data stored on SANs
2000 26%
2005* 70%


Source: IDC, Framingham, Mass.

Chuck Kinne, a technology consultant at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J., helped AT&T Solutions install SANs at four locations. AT&T Labs built three of the SANs around Hewlett-Packard Co.'s SureStor XP256 disk arrays and Brocade's SilkWorm 2800 Fibre Channel switches. Each of those SANs will eventually support 90 servers and 3.3TB of data, Kinne says.

"Now they are all HP, but we'll add Solaris and NT, and within six months we'll have all kinds of things attached," he says.

The best way to avoid interoperability problems, Kinne advises, is to use the latest software releases and make sure all the latest patches are applied, especially to operating systems.

Kinne says AT&T went with HP because it was the first to offer a Fibre Channel boot capability, which allows servers to boot directly from the SAN disk array. "I had no internal disk in any of the servers on the SAN, no direct-attached storage. We do everything in the array," he says. That makes management and change control much easier, he adds.

But the most compelling benefit of Fibre Channel boot is the reliability it brings, according to Kinne. "Our No. 1 problem with the servers was with the failure of internal disk drives," he says. "I don't have to worry about disk failures anymore because there is redundancy inside the array."

Kinne acknowledges that it was more expensive initially to set up the SANs than to upgrade the older direct-attached storage, but he says storage administration with a SAN costs half as much. "When you add up the cost of outages, time to do conversions, backup and recovery—all of which are much simpler with a SAN—and then throw in the extra cost of the array and switches, I figure I break even at between 40 and 50 servers on the SAN," he says. "After that, it's gravy."

Kinne's fourth SAN uses EMC disk arrays instead of HP disks, and McData switches rather than Brocade devices. "It provides a measure of competition," he explains. "I can say, 'HP did this; EMC did that. Let's compare price and support.' It keeps them both honest."

You may not need a great deal of expertise to deploy a SAN, says North. "If I'm a neophyte with SANs, I'd work with a company that provides the integration expertise," he says. "Compaq and Dell package up turnkey solutions for particular business problems. They [offer] single-source, multivendor solutions. And they support them as an integrated package."

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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