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The networked storage project: Getting started

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What we learned
Manage your resources. More often than not, the difference between

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a successful project and a failure comes down to project management. It's the one tool often overlooked in the designer's arsenal. Experience has shown that successful projects are managed projects. Therefore, from day one, we assigned a project manager who had the responsibility for project coordination, inter- and intradepartmental communications and expense control. He used Microsoft Project 2002 to chart our milestones and critical paths on a PERT chart. This was an import asset to us in keeping on schedule, assuring that everyone stayed informed and making sure that the SAN was implemented properly and economically.

Watch the bottom line. Heavy duty storage systems are attractive, but so is the tendency to add on additional features, capability and thus cost. You can avoid this by having a clearly defined budget for the project and then sticking with it. Project managers who complete large projects on time and within budget usually live another day to manage other projects.

Training and more training. Fibre Channel (FC) has LAN-like characteristics. It has switches like a LAN, but don't be fooled-FC isn't a LAN. It requires specialized knowledge that network administrators typically don't have. That means training, so be sure to include training as part of your SAN project budget. Dell initially provided some FC training, but the hours included in their proposal were a bit on the anemic side. We asked Dell to increase both the duration and number of people who could be trained on FC at their headquarters in Austin, TX. They agreed and did so.

Know what you're getting. FC isn't new, but it was new to us. We wanted to learn as much as possible and the best way to do that is to ask questions. For that reason, we weren't the least bit hesitant to fire off a series of questions to our vendor about the FC switches and the SAN.

Here are a few examples of our questions:
  1. Does the FC design use a 1Gb/s or 2Gb/s switch?
  2. Does the switch allow for nondisruptive code updates?
  3. Does your SAN design use inter-switch links?
  4. How do you provide redundancy?
  5. Are you using redundant HBAs in the servers? Are your switches dual-homed?
With the right questions, good answers and both of your eyes open, your FC installation can be carefully planned, well-implemented and bring needed storage capacity to your enterprise.
A storage area network (SAN) for e-mail?" I immediately recognized the questioning look on my colleague's face. It wasn't so long ago that I felt same way myself. Common wisdom says that SANs are intended to house large amounts of data, typically terabytes--massive storage demands not generally associated with e-mail systems. Consequently, it was unusual to use a SAN for an e-mail system. But today things are different--users routinely send multimegabyte file attachments with their e-mails. In addition, they expect their e-mails to be retrievable--attachments and all--for something close to forever. This means that the modest storage needs of yesterday's mail systems have all but vanished. Today's e-mail systems need to have robust storage capacity, and that usually means you need to have a SAN. And besides an enormous amount of storage, a SAN promised to provide another benefit to West Virginia University's (WVU) Novell GroupWise e-mail system--fault tolerance. Last year, I would have said that e-mail systems weren't as mission critical as, say, our Oracle database system or our enterprise file servers. However, a series of e-mail system outages in late fall of 2001 proved differently. A backlash of angry complaints filtered all the way up to the president's office. When the CIO made GroupWise stabilization my highest priority, it became abundantly clear that e-mail had become mission critical to the daily operation of our university.

Selecting the vendor
Through an informal request for information (RFI) process, we selected three vendors-each already had an established presence on campus. They were: Compaq (now HPQ), Dell/EMC, and IBM. All were asked to tell us their SAN story. These vendors made our short list because, besides being known entities, the procurement process is much easier and faster with vendors who have existing state contracts. Our first meeting was an introductory session focusing on the high points of each vendor's SAN offering. Follow-up meetings with each vendor probed into deeper technical detail.

We assembled a selection team consisting of members from the GroupWise services and LAN services units to rank the three vendors. At first, we planned to have the winning vendor provide the SAN and use Dell PowerEdge servers for the GroupWise systems. Dell has a partnership with WVU and has traditionally been the server vendor of choice for the campus. However, it quickly became evident that if we were to have, say, Compaq as our SAN vendor and Dell as our server vendor, we would wind up placing Compaq Host Bus Adapters (HBAs) into Dell servers. While there wasn't anything technically wrong with that, we wanted to avoid any likelihood of vendor finger-pointing if something didn't work as advertised. As a result, we decided to go with a single vendor. Whoever we selected to provide our SAN would also provide our servers.

To iSCSI or not
Next, we had to decide which storage technology would be best for our environment. While we could use traditional direct-attached storage (DAS), using iSCSI and network-attached storage (NAS) was attractive, especially since our Network Operations staff already knows IP and both iSCSI and NAS ride over Ip. There was also iSCSI's throughput advantage. Fibre Channel (FC) operates at rates up to 2Gb/s--clearly a decent speed, but far less than the potential iSCSI rate over 10GbE. We thought that would make iSCSI ideal for adding storage.

When we investigated more closely, we learned that while it certainly has great potential, iSCSI standards aren't expected to be in place before the end of the year. Since WVU's network operations are highly standards-based, we decided that it wouldn't be sensible to include a pre-standard version of iSCSI.

NAS was an attractive option for off-site mirroring. We could use it over our campus backbone network instead of tying up dedicated fiber. Still, we were uneasy about potential latency and bandwidth issues over Ip.

We were also concerned with system stability. We wanted a storage technology that had been around long enough to make reliability and support a no-brainer for ourselves and the selected vendor. At the end of the day, we decided to go with FC and incorporate NAS and iSCSI later.

Now that the storage model had been determined, Compaq, Dell/EMC, and IBM returned for another informal RFI session. During those sessions, we took a careful look at each vendor's SAN proposal. All three vendors supplied what we felt to be a credible solution for our storage needs. The decision came down to whoever offered the lowest priced and the most robust solution.

We looked at the cost figures trying to match apples to apples. IBM's quote $285,000 was the highest of the three vendors, partly because their solution required 20 additional drives. Compaq's quote of $265,000 was marginally higher than Dell's. However, Compaq's solution used single FC cards and only one FC switch. The Dell/EMC proposal was in the same ballpark at Compaq's, but included redundant FC switches and dual-homed HBAs. For that reason, the decision was made to go with the Dell/EMC solution. Contractual issues with Dell prevent me from discussing their exact price. However, the entire GroupWise project had a budget of $350,000. That includes the SAN, two FC switches, the GroupWise servers and consulting fees. The SAN is 1TB. We expect to add another 500GB to 700GB by the summer of 2003.

This was first published in December 2002

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