SAN holdouts

In the first of three stories profiling organizations at various stages of storage networking, we look at those who have chosen to wait and find out why.

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Better disk utilization. Better scalability. Improved data availability. These are just a few of the advantages supposedly awaiting enterprises making the move from direct-attached to networked storage topologies. What conscientious storage manager could resist?

Withering storage budgets?
As the economic slowdown continues, many companies are attempting to hold down storage spending, according to a recent survey of 129 senior executives by Forrester Research Inc. Of those surveyed:


Yet a March 2003 survey of 529 Storage readers showed a different picture:


The difference probably speaks to the volatility of the issue, as well as the difference in perception between direct storage managers and higher-level IT execs.

Tim McGovern, for one. The director of engineering at Skywalker Sound, a film production studio in Nicasio, CA, spent the last 18 months testing--and, he says, breaking--various storage area network (SAN) products. Before that, he and his team had spent five years investigating SANs. They declined to do any hands-on testing because, he says, most products were too expensive and lacked the kind of robust storage management and virtualization features he needed.

Only last fall did he finally change his mind and spend $2 million for a SAN setup, consolidating 18TB of data--which was mostly post-production movie audio and film files--from direct-attached storage (DAS) devices. His verdict after a few months of living with the SAN is that while Skywalker Sound's film editors have embraced it because the SAN gives them near-instant access to files it previously took them up to 20 minutes to find and load onto their servers, the IT side of the operation has found the SAN every bit as expensive and difficult to manage as McGovern had expected.

"Frankly, I don't believe the SAN makes business sense at this point," says McGovern. "You'd be looking at getting payback on your investment in a matter of decades, not years." Fortunately for editors at privately owned Skywalker Sound, the company's chairman, filmmaker George Lucas, is the type who doesn't mind taking on an expensive storage project if it means turning out better movies. "I don't think a regular accounting department would have gone ahead and approved this," says McGovern.

McGovern is not alone in harboring doubts about the cost-effectiveness of networked storage. Long after many large enterprises have accepted the idea of networked storage and begun replacing direct-attached storage devices with SANs and network-attached storage (NAS), a significant number of holdouts are still dragging their heels. Many of those remaining on the networked storage sidelines are small and medium-sized businesses that, particularly in times of economic uncertainty, are unable to justify making a significant investment to replace DAS that works--even if it doesn't necessarily work optimally. A recent Gartner Inc. survey of companies with between 100 and 1,000 employees found that 70% still rely mainly on direct-attached storage, while only 32% have begun using SANs for block storage. (See "Slow to move to networked storage").

"Among these midsized companies, SANs are still seen as quite expensive and complicated to manage," says Pushan Rinnen, a senior analyst for Gartner. "Most of them think it's not a good investment."

But it is not just small and medium-sized companies that have been holding out or moving slowly toward networked storage. Many larger enterprises that had embarked on the move from DAS to SANs have begun to apply the brakes, according to a recent survey by TheInfoPro, a market intelligence company in New York. The study found that 40% of storage professionals plan to spend less on SANs in 2003 than they did in 2002, and 30% said they plan to spend the same amount. The study found concern among enterprise admins about whether they would receive adequate returns from SAN investments, as well as dissatisfaction with storage management tools.

Cost crunch
Holdouts cite many reasons for remaining cool to networked storage, including the perceived complexity of SAN products, the immaturity of SAN products and standards and inadequate storage management software. Other issues include confusion over whether to use SANs or NAS devices and uncertainty about the value of vendor-touted features such as storage virtualization and snapshots.

"The vendors and system integrators don't even know when to use snapshot, what problems it solves and how to integrate it into a backup or archiving strategy realistically, so they're not doing the users any favors [by pushing it]," says Steve Kenniston, an Enterprise Storage Group analyst based in San Jose, CA.

But by far the single most significant roadblock facing networked storage holdouts is concern about high product costs--particularly for Fibre-based SANs-- and how quickly a networked storage investment will pay for itself.

"It's all about ROI right now," says Scott Stone, senior director for the professional services global storage practices at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Detroit. "If you can't show payback quickly, they'll show you the door."

The lingering economic downturn has made ROI a more important question among networked storage holdouts. First, at many organizations, dollars simply aren't available for IT infrastructure projects unless payback can be assured within 12 months, according to Brad Nisbet, a storage analyst at IDC. "In recent economic times, we find many storage customers are backing off from strategic implementations and are instead focusing on shorter-term, tactical decisions," says Nisbet, "such as using the storage they already have--in many cases, DAS."

"Many smaller companies are about where large enterprises were two years ago when it comes to deploying SANs," says Paul Ross, director of storage networking at EMC Corp. "The difference is that, compared to two years ago, the smaller guys aren't growing as fast."

That's been the case at 600-employee Stahls' Inc., a St. Clair Shores, MI, maker of graphics systems for printing on garments. Stahls' director of technology, Mike Terenzi, has tried for the last two years to persuade top management at the privately owned company to replace the firm's Dell PowerVault 201 DAS devices--which hold about 50GB of data--with a SAN. Terenzi argues that the SAN would improve disk utilization by consolidating data availability. The company's top managers, however, weren't buying the argument, partly because the down economy had slowed the typical data growth at Stahls' from a gigabyte per month to as little as half of that.

"Upper management didn't really understand what we would be getting with a SAN," says Terenzi. "It was a cost issue."

Recently, however, Terenzi changed his approach, arguing that it was necessary to replace DAS with a SAN in order to support a planned upgrade of the company's Great Plains enterprise resource planning system. Because the upgrade of the Great Plains software--Version 7.5--replaces a monolithic architecture with a separate application server and database server, Terenzi told Stahls' management there would be increased risk of down time--and lost sales--should one of the servers fail. A SAN, he says, would provide consolidated data storage and allow one of the Great Plains servers to continue operating--with access to all critical data--even if one of the two servers were to fail.

Two years after beginning his SAN campaign, Terenzi recently got approval for a $125,000 investment in a 60GB Dell/EMC Fibre Channel (FC) SAN built around Dell's rack storage. Terenzi is now testing the SAN setup and expects to roll it out with the Great Plains upgrade.

But Terenzi says that the SAN go-ahead never would have come about if not for the Great Plains project. "We were able to bring to the attention of top management that if the Great Plains database server were to go down for a day, we'd lose $200,000 in sales," says Terenzi. "With the SAN, we've eliminated that threat, short of a fire in the data center."

Cost concerns are also behind the reluctance of many organizations to expand use of an existing FC SAN. The University of Michigan, for example, deployed an FC SAN last March for its video-on-demand and unified messaging applications. The SAN, purchased from Sanrad Inc., in Tel Aviv, Israel, has proved more than adequate for meeting the demands of streaming video to multiple university departments and for storing the e-mail, voice mail and fax data generated by the university's 97,000 students. The 2TB FC SAN uses two 1TB JBODs that are redundantly attached to two separate controllers. The SAN setup connects to the university's wide area network via iSCSI, using three Gigabit Ethernet ports.

But while the FC SAN has performed well, university officials are shying away from moving more data and more applications to the SAN. Officials from various parts of the university are currently discussing building a centralized storage utility that different departments could tap into, paying for storage on an as-needed basis. But, says Daniel Hague, a senior engineer for the school, the university probably won't use the FC SAN for that project. Why? It's too expensive, he says.

"The JBODs are very expensive, and the controllers are very expensive," says Hague. "That means each time we need to expand it, we have to go through an involved cost-justification process. We'd like to be able purchase storage like anything else, through the central purchasing function. A drive shouldn't cost a fortune."

He says the university is now looking at other alternatives for storage, such as lower-cost IP-connected SANs.

Complexity concerns
But it's not just concern over cost that's keeping many organizations from buying into networked storage or significantly expanding its use. The complexity of SANs and the difficulty of managing them have also kept even technologically adventurous organizations such as Skywalker Sound waiting for years on the networked storage sidelines.

At Skywalker Sound, the big challenge was finding storage management and virtualization software robust enough to manage files once they were stored on the SAN. While most SAN products are designed to allow enterprise applications to store and retrieve large amounts of fairly static transaction-oriented data that isn't frequently shared among multiple servers, Skywalker Sound had a much different problem. Film editors are constantly collaborating on different projects, so they need to be able to dynamically check audio and film files as small as 3GB in and out. They also need some form of file locking so that one set of editors can't make changes to files that are simultaneously being worked on elsewhere. At any given time, up to 80 different editors are accessing files from their Macintosh workstations.

Before deploying the SAN, a Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) 9980V running HiCommand management and ShadowImage file copy management software, Skywalker Sound engineers used removable, direct-attached hard drives, physically transporting disks from one workstation to another. The constant fear among all engineers, says Skywalker Sound's McGovern, was that a removable disk would fail while in transit, threatening changes or entire files.

A SAN--accessible directly from all editor workstations--was the obvious answer. But Skywalker Sound also needed file management and virtualization software that would allow the company to track and manage files as they bounced from editor to editor. Complicating Skywalker Sound's problem was the lack of a robust file system on the client side. While Apple's new OS X operating system adds improved file management, OS 9--which Skywalker Sound runs--has no file system. So the company looked to SAN virtualization and storage management software to support file locking and management in its very dynamic, high-performance environment.

"For a long time, management was the real showstopper," says Jacob Balser, Skywalker Sound's network administrator. One product, for example, would not transfer data between the storage devices and the host in chunks larger than 1MB, seriously bottlenecking the system. "It wasn't feeding enough raw data through to the workstations," he says. "We couldn't get more than six machines attached to the SAN."

Another product Skywalker Sound tried--a storage router appliance--failed when the company attempted to get several units to work together. In order to scale the system to support the required number of hosts, Skywalker Sound deployed multiple router appliances. The appliances, Balser says, were supposed to interoperate, distributing load across several routers and giving any host the ability to save any storage at any time.

"Unfortunately," says Balser, "a real-world crash of one router would ripple through the SAN and cause all other routers to hang, crash or reboot, dropping all connections to storage and effectively bringing down every project."

At one point, says McGovern, Skywalker Sound officials considered bypassing FC SANs and waiting for IP-based SAN products that could take advantage of more proven, Ethernet-based management protocols and tools. In the end, however, Skywalker Sound opted for the HDS SAN, largely because Hitachi could provide both the storage hardware and management software and virtualization engine that came close to doing what the company needed. Still, Skywalker Sound officials admit that it's not a perfect fit. Because of limitations in the Apple OS, Skywalker editors aren't able to easily create, move and otherwise manage files stored on the SAN. So McGovern and his technical team must take on such mundane, time-consuming operational tasks themselves.

"We've achieved storage efficiency at the expense of smooth back-room operations," says McGovern.

An absence of robust storage management tools--particularly cross-platform tools--is also complicating deployments at large enterprises that are firmly committed to networked storage. Defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin, for example, is giving itself three years to fully roll out an enterprisewide networked storage strategy that will include SANs from EMC at Lockheed's data center in Sunnyvale, CA, as well as a collection of SAN, NAS and tape storage at sites in 45 states. The $27 billion company is just over a year into its networked storage rollout, according to director of infrastructure services Stephen Hightower.

What's taking the company so long? Hightower says it's partly because the cross-platform storage management software needed to manage both legacy devices and the newly deployed networked storage at distributed locations doesn't exist yet. So often, he says, company storage managers have to negotiate with distributed technical staff over which storage management tools will be used.

"You get into cases where you have to spend time discussing which standards to use, which make the most sense," says Hightower. "That happens when you have a large legacy environment." (For more on issues facing companies attempting to proliferate networked storage platforms and standards enterprisewide, see the second installment of this series which will be published in the October issue of Storage.)

Slow to move to networked storage
Small and medium-sized companies are slow to move to networked storage, according to a Gartner Inc. survey taken at the end of 2002 of storage managers at companies with 100 to 1,000 employees. The survey showed:

Beyond virtualization
Many organizations also find themselves delaying purchasing decisions in part out of concern over the relative immaturity of many networked storage products and the notion that a less expensive solution to their problems is just around the corner. Like Skywalker Sound, Stahls' Terenzi spent time evaluating IP-attached SAN technology before finally settling on the FC SAN approach. Although the Fibre Channel SAN was more expensive, says Terenzi, "the IP stuff is fairly new and because of the mission-critical nature of what we were doing, we decided to go with the Fibre implementation."

Even storage vendors admit that the rapid evolution of the attached storage market--the emergence of iSCSI and IP-attached SANs and concepts such as virtualization--have confused their networked storage marketing message and caused many potential enterprise customers to back off or delay purchases.

"Two years ago, it was all about the V [virtualization] word, how great it was going to be, that you didn't even need to know where your storage was," says Mark Nagaitis, director of product marketing for infrastructure and network-attached storage at Hewlett-Packard in Houston. "But for many customers, the concept proved too complex, and they shied away."

Not surprisingly, vendors say they're on their way to fixing much of the confusion and cost issues that have kept some away from networked storage. That sounds good to the University of Michigan's Hague, who decided against building a centralized storage utility on top of the school's FC SAN because it was too expensive. Hague and his team are planning to propose basing the storage utility project on a new IP-based SAN product from Intransa, which they are now testing. Says Hague: "It's certainly much more affordable."

This was first published in September 2003
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