Spring cleaning for storage clutter

Consolidating storage can pay future returns if done right

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on smart storage strategies. Read the second article, "Defeating the dumpster divers."

Information technology executives may be tempted to keep buying more storage devices as online data continues to accumulate at alarming rates. However, adding new capacity to servers generating the most storage demand won’t necessarily solve the problem.

The use of available space on server-attached storage is notoriously poor. And the need to manage myriad storage systems only adds to the expense and inefficiency of the storage infrastructure.

Storage consolidation, which can be done by using fewer but larger storage devices or centralizing data in a storage-area network (SAN), provides an alternative strategy that is putting many government agencies on the path of cost avoidance.

Clearly something must be done. And it’s a foregone conclusion that storage costs will continue to increase with the growth of data, said Rich Harsell, regional director at GlassHouse Technologies’ Federal Division. But with consolidation, an enterprise has an opportunity to at least keep the spending in check. Harsell estimated that a large organization might be able to scale back future storage costs by as much as 30 percent through consolidation.

“There’s always a positive slope,” Harsell said of storage costs. “It’s the control of the slope that is the important aspect.”

But projects must be carefully planned — and pitfalls avoided — for organizations to reap the benefits of consolidation. Here are the steps that experts recommend to make a consolidation project go smoothly.

1. Understand your environment
Industry consultants advise that a storage consolidation project should always start with a thorough understanding of the existing environment. It’s difficult to plan for the future when the present is not well understood.

“Typically, one of the biggest hurdles is that [government agencies] have no idea of what they have,” said Larry Fondacaro, senior solutions architect at integrator Emtec Federal.

That situation can be rectified by an analysis of server-attached storage. Armed with the knowledge of how much storage is in each server, agencies can determine which servers are good candidates for consolidation, said Howard Weiss, field solutions team manager at CDW.

For example, servers with large databases or file servers with considerable back-end storage would be candidates for consolidation. A small application server that stores nothing beyond its operating system doesn’t belong on a consolidated SAN, Weiss said.

“You don’t want to put every server on a SAN,” he said.

Meanwhile, hardware inventories also lead to a better understanding of utilization rates, which is helpful for setting future goals. For example, officials at the University of New Hampshire started a consolidation project last year to corral storage on a single SAN.

Before beginning the project, the school discovered that its average storage utilization in its direct-attached environment was about 40 percent, said Joe Doucet, director of the Enterprise Computing Group at the university’s Computing and Information Services department. Utilization was also inconsistent; some server-attached storage was at maximum capacity, while other devices used only 30 percent of the available space.

Now, the university aims for a 70 percent utilization level, an objective it plans to reach by the end of 2008, Doucet said.

2. Gauge performance requirements
Organizations must know the performance requirements of their applications and user expectations. Storage performance is measured in I/Os per second, the amount of data transferred on and off a hard drive.

An organization may be managing by simply by relying on the speed of the five drives on a typical server, in which each drive is capable of 100 to 150 I/Os per second. Those rates are much lower than most low-end SANs, Weiss said.

“A lot of customers buy the faster SAN because they think they need it,” he said. The lesson is don’t overpay for performance you don’t need, unless you can make a solid case for needing the extra capacity in the future.

3. Nail down current storage costs
An agency that determines its current storage costs can calculate the benefits of consolidation and build a better business case. Knowledge of the cost baseline is also handy for evaluating alternative storage solutions. However, agencies often lack this knowledge because it’s hard to collect.

“The organizations we’ve dealt with don’t have any cost models in place, and hence the only costs that they can put a finger on are acquisition costs,” Harsell said.

Meanwhile, the initial purchase price of storage provides only part of the picture. Harsell estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of a typical storage budget is tied to acquisition. Other significant costs include salaries, data center floor space, power and cooling, and software license fees.

“Frequently, the comparison between what we are getting rid of and what we are bringing into the data center is pretty narrowly looked at in terms of total cost of ownership,” said Bob Wambach, senior director of storage product marketing at EMC.

Wambach ranked labor and utilities as the top two storage-cost items. Acquisition, over the life of a storage solution, can end up as the No. 3 cost source, he said.

Agencies sometimes overlook the storage-related work server and networking employees do, and they may fail to include their work in calculating overall storage costs, Harsell said.

By getting a detailed grasp of cost, a storage shop can become an in-house service provider if it chooses and can charge other departments for the storage capacity they use.

Harsell said GlassHouse encourages its clients to adopt Information Technology Infrastructure Library-compliant cost models. ITIL is a set of best practices for managing IT services.

4. Classify your data
It’s not enough to account for server-based storage. Agencies need to understand the nature of the data they store.

“Most people I talk to really don’t know the data that is in storage on the servers,” Weiss said.

The result is inefficient and expensive storage practices. For example, an organization that doesn’t identify static data — for example, JPEGs or PDFs — stands to make thousands of copies of unchanging files during years of back-up sessions, Weiss said. But an organization that flags static data can design a SAN with an area for fixed-content storage, he said.

Agencies that take the time to sort their data can usually take advantage of tiered-storage architectures. In such arrangements, technicians assign data to the most cost-effective storage platform based on the data’s criticality, or in the case of fixed-content storage, its changeability.

Critical data goes on the top tier, which is typically the highest performing disk storage.

Noncritical data may reside in the bottom tier, a tape — or disk-based archive. Some organizations operate an intermediate tier for data of middling value. This tier usually consists of storage built around lower-cost devices, such as Serial ATA (SATA) disk arrays.

“Normally, we try to keep the high-performance applications like [Microsoft] Exchange…on Fibre Channel, and depending on the performance expectation, that could be a 10,000 or 15,000 rpm drive,” said Dale Wickhizer, chief technology officer at Network Appliance’s federal division. “For most everything else…SATA is a great candidate.”

Fondacaro said Emtec Federal uses storage resource management tools to classify data for customers. Data may be classified by application, file type and most recent access time.

That arrangement helps customers decide whether a particular piece of data is critical and needs to be housed in high-end production storage or whether it is infrequently accessed and can be housed in near-line or archival storage.

5. Deploy the solution
An organization that understands its storage environment, costs and data types can proceed to the next step: evaluating vendors and deploying a storage solution. At this point, no single approach is indicated. Weiss said options range from “small, budget-conscious products all the way up to enterprise SANs.”

Lt. Col. C. J. Wallington, division chief of advanced technologies at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems, said he has identified a storage consolidation need for small groups of users. The division is testing an EqualLogic SAN for tactical use.

On the opposite end of the scale, SANs that already provide some degree of consolidation are evolving into more dense configurations, Wambach said.

The same holds true for network-attached storage devices, he said. Those devices consolidate file-level storage, while SANs aggregate block-level storage associated with databases.

“The consolidation trend is to build bigger boxes,” Wambach said.
Consolidation perksA successful storage consolidation project can produce a variety of savings. Here are three of the most common. 
  • Cut acquisition costs
Reducing capital expenses ranks high as a reason for consolidating storage. Consolidation begets better use of storage resources, which means organizations don’t have to pay as much for storage.

Howard Weiss, field solutions team manager at CDW, said a customer may equip a small server with eight hard drives but use only 25 percent of the storage space. With drives costing $300 to $400 apiece, an idle storage unit is a prime money-waster.

But idle drives are only part of the problem. In a direct-attached storage environment, excess capacity on one server can’t be shared elsewhere. So as customers implement new servers and applications, they purchase more server-attached storage.

In comparison, pooling storage resources and sharing them on a network breaks the cycle of equipping every server with storage. “The cost savings can be quite enormous,” Weiss said.
  • Trim soft costs
Consolidating reduces operational and capital costs. Fewer drives draw less power. “Beside the processor, those hard drives are one of the most-power hungry things inside of the server,” Weiss said.

Reducing the number of storage devices means less equipment to manage, which helps keep operational and labor expenses under control.

“One of the key reasons [to consolidate] is to get a better handle on operational costs and the people costs,” said Arun Taneja, president of the Taneja Group, a storage consulting firm.

The University of New Hampshire targets improved utilization and staff savings with its ongoing project to corral storage on a single storage-area network (SAN). On the workforce side, consolidation has let the university triple its storage capacity without adding staff.

“The ongoing cost of staff is one of the hardest things to deal with in a university,” said Tom Franke, the university’s chief information officer.
  • Out with the old
Sometimes simply parting with old and difficult-to-maintain equipment is a benefit in itself.

Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, is disposing of servers and associated storage that it began using 20 years ago. Clifford Clarke, the city’s chief information officer, said the old equipment needs to be refreshed because it can support only a limited amount of direct-attached storage units. The city has begun migrating to an EMC-based SAN.

— John Moore
Consolidation pitfallsAgencies that pursue a storage consolidation strategy should be prepared for trouble spots on the way to greater efficiency. “Clearly, putting all your eggs in one basket creates its own challenges,” said Arun Taneja, president of the Taneja Group.

Here are three potential hazards for which being prepared can prevent trouble.
  • Loss of system availability
A disk drive failure in a direct-attached storage system typically doesn’t affect many users. But having a shared-storage array go down could affect many people, and organizations don’t always consider that possibility.

“When you build a consolidated system, you really have to build it with a much stronger foundation,” Taneja said. Consolidators, he added, should ask themselves, “What am I doing to ensure the availability of that system is rock solid?”

Redundancy is the main theme here. Taneja said organizations can deploy arrays with dual Redundant Array of Independent Disks controllers and install dual host-bus adapters on servers. They can build redundant cabling and storage switches into the storage architecture.
  • Inadequate disaster recovery
Storage experts advise having a disaster recovery strategy before they consolidate their storage. Organizations can use various snapshot products to make point-in-time copies of their data. They can also opt for remote replication, a process in which data housed on a production array is continuously copied to an off-site array.

The choice will depend on the expectations of users for whom recovery time and recovery points are critical. Sean Derrington, director of storage management at Symantec’s data center management group, advises customers to create various tiers of service that can satisfy those expectations.
  • Disappointing data response times
When storage is consolidated, remote users no longer have the burden of maintaining storage. But they might gain a new headache: having to wait a bit longer to gain access to their data.

Clifford Clarke, Fort Wayne’s chief information officer, identified remote connectivity problems as an unintended consequence of the Indiana city’s consolidated file storage project. The city, which has more than 30 remote sites, found that it was taking a long time for information to move across the wide-area network. File access times stretched to a minute.

The city expects to fix the problem by installing Cisco Systems’ Wide Area Application Services solution. Clarke said the devices reduce access times by 40 percent to 60 percent and provide local-area network-like performance.

— John Moore


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