IBM Holds Virtual Monopoly

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If you have a storage area network (SAN) with a lot of different devices, particularly from more than one vendor, a good storage virtualization solution can make administering and managing your network a whole lot easier — and more cost-effective.

But until recently, many (if not most) of the big-name storage vendors had shied away from creating relatively inexpensive heterogeneous solutions. Not IBM. Its three-year-old SAN Volume Controller (SVC) now supports 50 different storage systems, including those by EMC, HP, HDS, Dell, and StorageTek, and is dominating the network-based storage virtualization field with 2,000 customers and counting.

Taneja Group founder and consulting analyst Arun Taneja sees heterogeneous, network-based storage virtualization as an idea whose time has come.

“I don’t know of an IT shop today that doesn’t have a potpourri of products,” whether from the same vendor or from different vendors, says Taneja.

“The whole idea of storage virtualization is to mask the differences between these physical devices and to give the storage administrator a set of tools that operate in a consistent fashion and make productivity significantly higher, because you don’t have to have an expert on EMC Symmetrix and another on Hitachi Data Systems Lightning or Thunder,” or any other particular product, he says.

That ability to move data easily between devices has made some vendors loathe to fully embrace storage virtualization.

“Because storage virtualization enables companies to migrate data non-disruptively from one storage device to another, the fear [of storage vendors] has been, ‘Oh my God, they might actually move my product out over time and go with a more cost-effective product,'” says Taneja.

From Migration to Management

Not IBM. Although most of IBM’s storage virtualization customers to date have been IBM shops, more customers are looking to IBM SVC as a bridge for migrating data from one company’s storage device to another’s, in many cases IBM’s.

“What people often find is that IBM SVC provides a very simple and easy way of getting from one type of storage to another,” says IBM SVC marketing manager Chris Saul.

Once administrators see how easy it is to use, they use it to improve their SAN’s performance, provide common copy services across different types of storage systems, and as an information lifecycle management (ILM) solution, he says.

“When customers come to us, they’re not necessarily coming to us and saying, I need a virtualization system,” says Saul. “They’re saying they have a concern about how quickly the amount of storage they have is growing and about the cost of managing that storage.”

One of the ways that IBM SVC helps companies better manage their storage — and thus reduce costs — is by giving them a window into how much storage they are currently using and where they need to shift or add capacity.

“The SAN Volume Controller has a centralized control,” explains Saul. “So we can reduce the amount of spare capacity that’s required, because all of the capacity is now shared across all of the servers that are now using it. And because with SAN Volume Controller it’s so easy to change the configuration, we find that customers do not end up parceling out huge chunks of storage to individual application teams. So they can make more efficient use of their existing storage and are able to delay additional storage purchases.”

Doing More With Less

IBM SVC has also allowed customers like FirstMerit Bank to grow their storage without growing their headcount.

FirstMerit, which serves more than 500,000 households in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania and has assets over $10 billion, purchased a SAN from IBM in early 2004. The original project required six servers, and the IT team pretty quickly saw bottlenecks occurring in the system.

“No matter which way we went, we couldn’t get the throughput we wanted,” recalls Dave Samic, senior network analyst at FirstMerit Bank. That led to the bank’s purchase of IBM’s storage virtualization solution just a few months later.

“It was a quick turnaround because we had some initiatives that were continuing to grow, and at the time the projects that were coming in on the SAN required more servers and more space,” says Samic. “We started out with about two terabytes of data and now we’re at about 12 terabytes of space being used.”

So how many IT administrators does it take to manage the roughly 200 servers now on FirstMerit’s SAN? Just two: Samic and another guy.

“That gives you an indication of how well it’s gone,” says Samic. “Not only are we doing this with two people, which is efficient as far as payroll is concerned, but we’re adding back value into the SAN by virtualizing on top of existing hardware as well as being able to plug and chug disk chassis as they come in. We can have a server up and running in about 10 minutes.”

In addition to allowing Samic and his “team” to easily scale the SAN both vertically and horizontally, the SVC is simple to use with a user-friendly interface (although that hasn’t stopped Samic from recommending some tweaks).

Another reason why Samic and SAN administrators are bullish on IBM SVC? IBM’s tech support. “Anybody can have a good product, but they’re making sure we’re satisfied with the product and giving us the help we need to find the answers we can’t find,” he says.

For more storage features, visit Enterprise Storage Forum Special Reports

Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff is a business and technology writer and a contributor to Enterprise Storage Forum. She also runs Schiff & Schiff Communications, a marketing firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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