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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.

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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.)

This was first published in September 2003

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