Cities opt for high-end storage

Storage purchasing tips

State and local agencies faced with choosing among the new crop of budget-priced enterprise storage gear may want to keep the following advice in mind.

  • Think big. Storage experts warn against the temptation of squeezing into a solution that is inexpensive but too small. Take the time to consider current and future needs and buy a small and medium business (SMB) solution with sufficient scalability.

  • Stay focused. SMB storage vendors have added several enterprise-like features to their lower-end products. Make sure you need all of them. A feature that doesn’t directly address your storage problems may add unnecessary cost to the solution.

  • Keep network costs in mind. If you are purchasing networked storage, think about including the cost of a separate network in your budget request. Storage managers advise against running storage traffic on the same segment as regular network traffic.

  • Don’t forget support. Consider your post-failure recovery time objective and purchase an appropriate support plan. If you can afford for a network to be down for one or two days, a support contract with next-day parts shipment is probably sufficient.

  • Consult with peers. States such as Minnesota have county information technology associations whose members can compare notes on solutions.

  • — John Moore

    3 storage trends

    A new storage protocol, faster office networks and cheaper disk technology have contributed to making storage systems more affordable for smaller government agencies.

    iSCSI arrives
    In Georgia, the Clayton County Water Authority consolidated older server-attached storage devices using a new storage-area network from EqualLogic. The SAN uses an Internet SCSI. Devices that use iSCSI can move storage traffic via general-purpose data networks most organizations already own.

    Chris Sims, network engineer at the water authority, said the move to iSCSI enabled the authority to avoid workforce and equipment costs that it would have incurred had it purchased special-purpose Fibre Channel storage gear.

    “We didn’t have a whole lot of Fibre Channel experience on staff,” Sims said. However, office employees were familiar with TCP/IP, the protocols behind the Internet and Ethernet office networks. The water authority saved on training and was able to sidestep the expense of hiring a storage engineer, who is a Fibre Channel specialist, Sims said.

    The iSCSI storage network eliminated the need for Fibre Channel gear, such as switches and host bus adapters for servers. Keeping the price low made it easier to get buy-in from the water authority’s board of directors, Sims said.

    More bandwidth
    For Chris Longshore, information systems manager for Arvada, Colo., the availability of a high-speed network played a major role in putting a more robust storage solution within reach. The city has installed StorServer’s K3000 backup appliance to replace kludgy tape backup systems.

    “Bandwidth was a huge consideration for us,” Longshore said. Arvada officials upgraded their network to 10-gigabit Ethernet in 2005.
    “We have a 10-gigabit connection to all of the key facilities and fiber in the ground,” Longshore said. “We did the network first to leverage that technology to help with the backups.”

    Cheaper disks
    The trend toward lower disk pricing continues apace. Disk pricing is decreasing as disk storage density is increasing, said Thomas Hogan, chief executive officer of storage vendor Revinetix.

    There are disk arrays with 1T of capacity now available for less than $5,000, which is about the same price a serious computer gamer might have paid for a high-end PC 10 years ago.

    “The only thing that is going faster than the downward spiral of disk-based pricing is the increase in the amount of data that people are generating,” Hogan said.

    — John Moore

    Enterprise-class storage features were once reserved for large organizations that could pay big bucks for high-end devices. But that situation has changed in recent years.

    Technology developments, lower prices and vendors’ efforts to repackage products for small and medium businesses (SMBs) have put top-shelf storage features within reach of smaller organizations, including state and local government agencies. Storage-area networks (SANs), remote replication and disk-based backup are among the capabilities that are reaching a broader customer base.

    The changes mean that smaller organizations can implement more sophisticated data-protection and continuity-of-operations plans. Scott Antczak, a storage specialist at CDW Government, said SMB storage technology lets smaller customers “get into enterprise-class functionality at a much lower price point.”

    Entry-level SMB storage solutions, which ship with as much as 1T of capacity, can cost less than $5,000 — a pittance compared with the five-figure price of some midrange storage products. But even more potent SMB solutions represent a significant savings over their midrange counterparts.

    For example, EMC’s Clariion CX3-10, an SMB product, costs $35,000 to $50,000, while the midrange Clariion CX3-40 costs $150,000 to $250,000. Although the CX3-10 has the same functionality as the more expensive box, the product isn’t as scalable, Antczak said.

    Limited scalability is a potential drawback of SMB solutions. Buyers must look beyond the low-entry price and consider whether the product can grow to meet their future requirements. Experts contend that a careful assessment of storage needs at the beginning of a project can help avoid unpleasant surprises at the end, such as the realization that a new storage solution will soon need to be replaced.

    State and local government buyers can choose from a range of storage options designed for smaller organizations. Vendors include companies that focus exclusively on the SMB market to enterprise storage vendors that now offer lower-priced versions of their products.

    Officials in Sherwood, Ore., took the latter route. They wanted a solution that could shorten the backup process and be a secondary tier of online storage for less critical user data. They examined a number of products and settled on Network Appliance’s StoreVault S500, which is geared to smaller organizations.
    “In the SMB space, there is a whole gamut of products,” said Brad Crawford, Sherwood’s IT manager. He added that he didn’t trust some of the products, and others were beyond his budget. But the StoreVault S500 caught his attention because it uses the same operating system — Data OnTap — that the company runs on its $40,000 and $50,000 storage devices. The StoreVault S500 starts at $6,000 for a 1T configuration.

    StoreVault’s incorporation of enterprise-grade features and economical Serial Advanced Technology Attachment sealed the deal, Crawford said.

    Drew Meyer, product marketing manager at NetApp’s StoreVault division, said other SMB customers also value those features. Data OnTap facilitates consolidation because the operating system can handle SANs and file-based network-attached storage at the same time, Meyer added. Smaller organizations can use “one platform for solving a whole bunch of different problems,” he said.
    Although some government customers are drawn to the established vendors of the enterprise storage world, others prefer to work with new companies that focus on solutions for small and midsize organizations.  

    Features of interest
    Officials in Overland Park, Kan., tapped one such vendor, Revinetix, a backup and recovery technology company founded in 2003. Randy Oehrle, Overland Park’s network administrator, said simplicity was the city’s primary consi deration and, he added, the company’s disk-based backup system is easier to manage than the Super Digital Linear Ta pe libraries the city previously used.

    For that system, officials had to buy more licenses as they added servers to the backup process. The Revinetix pricing plan doesn’t require the purchase of additional licenses, Oehrle said, which contributed to the cost-effectiveness of the product. 

    Thomas Hogan, president of Revinetix, said the company’s pricing strategy is the biggest factor in the product’s affordability. “We provide a site license for all users and no per-seat charge,” he said.
    The company’s product has helped Overland Park simplify and speed its backup process. The tape-based approach required hours of Oehrle’s time each day and ballooned as the city’s data holdings grew until backups were running around-the-clock.

    “The time it took to do backups was outrageous,” Oehrle said. Revinetix’s disk-based backup has reduced the management task to a few minutes daily and has cut the backup time to eight hours. “Now, I actually have a backup window at night,” Oehrle said.

    Chris Longshore, IT manager for Arvada, Colo., also cited simplicity as a major factor in that city’s selection of a backup appliance. Arvada chose StorServer’s K3000, which consists of a server with disk storage, an integrated tape library and IBM’s Tivoli storage management software.

    Longshore said the package is easy to use. The city sought a backup product that “we could get up and running in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. The K3000 started backing up the first server about two hours after technicians installed it. 

    Robust operating systems and disk-based backup are among the features that have become accessible to more buyers. But state and local government managers are also finding another formerly high-priced feature attractive: data replication.

    The approach appeals to organizations seeking improved data protection. But in past years, disk-to-disk replication was a feature only of high-end SANs and, therefore, well beyond the budgets of smaller customers. However, many lower-cost storage solutions now feature data replication.

    IT managers in Crow Wing County, Minn., replicate data between two EqualLogic SAN appliances that rely on Internet SCSI, a protocol that lets customers use existing IP networks for storage traffic. The lower infrastructure costs of iSCSI compared with high-end Fibre Channel appeal to smaller organizations.
    The county hired a consultant to set up the replication between the SANs, but Jim Eder, director of information systems at Crow Wing County, said EqualLogic’s replication feature is fairly easy to understand without a consultant’s help.

    Eder wanted to establish a replication service between the county’s main data center and another location — a process that was affordable with the EqualLogic product, he said. 

    Crawford said Sherwood officials are considering using the city’s StoreVault system to replicate data to an off-site location, such as an emergency operations center.

    Meyer said NetApp based StoreVault’s replication software on a pared-down version of the company’s SnapMirror to make it more affordable for smaller organizations.

    Another technology, called thin provisioning, has begun to appear in SMB storage systems, Antczak said. Thin provisioning lets an administrator create a storage volume that is larger than current requirements. For example, the administrator could establish a 6T volume but provision only 1T of disk initially. As storage needs grow, the administrator can add storage without having to adjust the volume.
    Traditionally, organizations bought more storage than they needed and grew into it. Thin provisioning can save money “because you don& rsqu ;t have to buy a whole bunch of storage upfront,” Meyer said.

    The technology is commonly available to large enterprises, but few companies offer it to smaller organizations, M er said. However, StoreVault offers thin provisioning through NetApp’s FlexVol technology.

    The allure of enterprise features at a small-business price should not distract agencies from the potential downsides to such products. Lack of scalability is a common problem, and organizations that underestimate their future storage needs could be in for costly technology replacements.

    If any agency starts too small, Antczak said, it could face a huge upgrade to a more scalable platform later. Buyers should consider the big picture when it comes to storage, he added.

    One strategy is to overestimate storage needs. “Things change, and being in state and local government, initiatives change quite often,” Crawford said. Sherwood officials thought 1T would be adequate but soon learned that geographic information systems and videos would create additional demands, he added.

    “Scalability is the most difficult thing to predict,” Antczak said.

    However, SMB storage products offer some headroom. “The initial scalability in the lower-end units today provide for growth in SMB,” Antczak said. If buyers grow beyond their original needs, he added, “there are upgrade paths to the larger, more scalable units.”

    SMB storage products typically offer a couple of methods for expansion. For example, administrators can add drives to the storage array or swap lower-capacity drives for higher-capacity models. In addition, some vendors offer the ability to buy additional arrays that technicians can manage from one console.
    Sherwood officials are working on a disk-based backup deployment that requires increasing the StoreVault system’s capacity. “In order to keep several days of backup…we needed more space,” Crawford said.

    Officials intend to replace the 250G drives with 500G drives. Crawford said the upgrade requires fully backing up and restoring the city’s data. Officials will remove the 250G drives, insert the 500G drives and restore the data from tape.

    However, had officials chosen to increase capacity by installing additional 250G drives, the process would have only required logging in to StoreVault’s software interface and enabling the new storage as available, he added.

    Hogan said customers can expand Revinetix’s Sentio line of appliances by buying additional units, aggregating them and managing them as one.

    Although upgrade options vary, state and local government buyers who plan ahead can find the storage features they need at an attractive price.


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