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Users Take Advantage of Unified Storage

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Unified storage platforms seem to be the in thing these days. EMC, NetApp, Pillar Data Systems, Reldata, Cisco and others have brought such products to market. But how are they doing in the real world?

First State Bank & Trust in Kansas opted for a Pillar Axiom system when faced with a doubling of storage requirements over an 18-month period to a total of 3.8TB.

“We saw value in the concept of unified storage to support our virtualized environment and keep pace with rapid growth,” said 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 [QoS] 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 the bank, the primary source of information resided on a mainframe. Over the years, however, applications spun off to a network environment. File servers became the home of vital banking applications, such as check imaging, remote deposits, customer inquiries and online banking. The bank needed a plan that would enable quick restoration of servers and file data in the event of a disaster. Aside from the need to fortify its disaster recovery (DR) plan, Wheeler also wanted to virtualize 13 servers with the goal of increasing useable capacity and decreasing total cost of ownership.

The financial institution worked closely with Choice Solutions, an Overland Park, Kan.-based technology integrator, to evaluate storage solutions, including those from EMC and others. Wheeler said most of the others favored multiple boxes as opposed to a unified set up. He also liked being able to set priority levels for applications, ease of use and ease of tuning.

“Our network manager, who oversees the SAN, really appreciates the set it and forget it operation of the Axiom,” said Wheeler. “Pillar stood out because its Axiom storage platform was built from the ground up to support a virtualized environment.”

The company purchased a pair of Axioms with 5TB of capacity – it can scale to more than one petabyte if required. The move has also upgraded the DR side. In previous DR testing, it took up to five days to recover all systems as the company needed to complete a laborious restore of all file servers. Now, said Wheeler, thanks to the combination of Citrix XenServer, Pillar Axiom and InMage replication software, he can complete a full recovery test in two hours.

First State Bank is replicating in real-time. With more useable capacity available, the virtualization project is also complete. As a result, it eliminated one and a half racks of equipment from the server room.

“We expect a payback on our Pillar investment within a five-year window,” said Wheeler.

While First State did not choose EMC unified storage, 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 Celerra became the central element of its unified storage architecture. The organization bought one Celerra NS-120 with 30 450GB Fibre Channel (FC) drives, 15 600GB Fibre Channel drives and six 70GB solid state drives (SSDs).

“We wanted flash for its tremendous read I/O potential as the VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure [VDI] is a very read-intensive workload,” said Showers. “Using flash allowed us to realize far more VDI instances running on a given number of disks than standard Fibre Channel disks.”

PTI's EMC Celerra NS unified storage system harnesses SSDs for VMware virtual machines (VMs) and virtual desktops, and Fibre Channel drives for student files, media serving, Blackboard distance learning, Microsoft SQL Server students records database and Microsoft Exchange email. Using VMware vSphere, PTI has virtualized 99 percent of its server infrastructure with 10 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,” said William Showers, PTI's supervisor of application programming. “We were particularly pleased with Celerra's file compression with data deduplication, multiple RAID options and support of 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 which 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, the company used VMware to consolidate approximately 75 physical servers down to only 10. 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 implementation, 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 virtual machines 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,” said Showers.

Further, college instructors needed remote access to high-end programming, CAD, multimedia and other applications so they could grade student work or prepare lesson plans from home. And growing demand among admissions staff to share video and photos of student activities, building construction and other events demanded more space and a more nimble architecture. Showers noted that all these capabilities required bigger servers which would have necessitated far greater power and cooling gear. Apart from not having the budget for power and cooling upgrades, there wasn’t enough space in the facility to squeeze in more gear. According to PTI, this project probably saved the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs for new servers and power and cooling.

“We dropped from about a 75% load on our 65KVa UPS to about 22%,” said Showers. “VMware really saved us from costly facilities upgrades.”

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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