Consolidating NAS pays off

Army Reserve consolidates its storage

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The U.S. Army Reserve's 108th Division consists of 3,300 soldiers dispersed over 200,000 square miles in four states and Puerto Rico, with units located in 23 cities and towns. The primary mission of the Division is to provide training. Until recently, it relied on 23 servers running Windows NT at 23 separate locations. Not surprisingly, the management of systems administration was a nightmare. Even tasks as straightforward as backup and disaster recovery were nearly impossible, says William Bailey, network manager, Ciber Inc., a consulting firm hired by the Army to develop and support the Division's network operation.

With only five system managers available to cover this sprawling set of systems, the Division decided to upgrade its servers to consolidate and centralize storage. The plan called for moving storage from the 23 distributed servers to eight data centers. This would allow for efficient storage administration and effective file backup and recovery. "We wanted to be able to back up the data at each data center, and after the first master replication, we would just back up what has changed," says Bailey.

The solution called for the installation of Inline Corp.'s FileStorm network-attached storage (NAS) appliances running Microsoft's Windows Storage Server 2003 in each data center. "We were already a Microsoft shop, so this was a very easy way to go," Bailey says. Each site has a 360GB hot-swappable disk capacity. When completely installed, the system will provide 2.9TB of storage overall (360GB at each of eight data centers). The system came loaded with capabilities, including volume shadow copy services, distributed file services, file replication features, a Web-based user interface, Terminal Services support, resource management and antivirus software.

Initially, the NAS appliances were installed at three of the data centers. Immediately, administrators began using the advanced features for quick file recovery. "We make a lot of use of shadow copy across RAID partitions," says Bailey. Using a variety of high-speed links, users can get to any file at any data center. Although the Division isn't yet replicating data between data centers, it expects to in the future. It also expects to add support for Active Directory.

Based on preliminary results from the continuing implementation, the new NAS-based system is a winner. Server upgrades that used to take five days now take half that time because of centralized file servers and snapshot copies. According to Bailey, the reduced labor has already resulted in about $70,000 in savings over the first six months. Chalk up a victory for the Army.

The U.S. Army Reserve's 108th Division faced a massive consolidation challenge, moving the workload of 23 Windows servers at 23 locations to eight data centers. It might have built an elaborate storage area network (SAN) to hold its 2.9TB of files. Instead, it opted for a set of network-attached storage (NAS) appliances running Microsoft Corp.'s latest storage operating system, Windows Storage Server 2003. "NAS seemed like the easiest way to go and it was also low cost," says William Bailey, network manager for Ciber Inc., Greenwood Village, CO, the consulting firm that consolidated the systems for the 108th Division (see "Army Reserve consolidates its storage").

A select group of storage managers like Bailey are bucking the trend toward "everything on the SAN" and are finding a place for NAS in the enterprise storage infrastructure. While NAS may ultimately be more limited than a SAN, these storage managers are leveraging its well-known ease of use in combination with increased capacity and new features to drive significant consolidation projects. And with more options to converge block and file storage, storage managers now can consolidate file storage with an eye toward a unified infrastructure later.

Stephen Foskett, practice manager for storage strategy at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., Framingham, MA, says the main payoff isn't where you might think it would be--replacing multiple smaller NAS devices with fewer large NAS devices.

"There aren't big savings from replacing six old NAS boxes with two newer, bigger ones. What you are getting is more reliable storage and greater storage density, which will reduce the footprint," he says. You also gain some licensing advantages and simplify the management, although management of NAS devices hasn't to date been a large issue.

Server consolidation, however, is a different story. Here, NAS can play a significant role in eliminating the plethora of servers that sprouted in companies in the '90s when direct-attached storage (DAS) was the main game and IT departments bought new application servers each time an existing one ran out of storage. Not only can you reduce the burden of managing an out-of-control server environment, but you can leverage the host of new features that have made their way into better NAS boxes. Those advanced features include replication clustering and SMI-S management (see "NAS management on the move").

This was first published in March 2004

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