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RBC's two-phase consolidation project

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Phase 1:
  • Tested and confirmed interoperability of storage area network (SAN) elements, shared results with business units
  • Centralized SAN procurement and standardized on hardware
  • Began to move to just-in-time utility provisioning of new SAN hardware
  • Established standard SAN deployment practices such as documentation
  • Used inter-switched links and 2Gb switches to create fewer, larger SANs for Windows systems
  • Continued for the time being to separately manage SANs attached to different operating systems, such as Windows, Unix and mainframe
Phase 2:
  • Deploying standard Storage resource management software, possibly going with EMC ControlCenter
  • Evaluating whether to create central, shared SAN utilities using LAN-free links running over dark fiber

Phase 2 kicks in
In Phase 2 of its SAN consolidation efforts--now in the evaluation stage--RBC will begin to address cross-platform management and create storage utilities that can be accessed remotely. Before consolidating SAN storage from multiple operating systems, however, RBC officials want to find a single storage software tool it can use to manage all fabrics, regardless of the kind of servers or storage arrays they contain.

Currently, RBC is testing EMC's ControlCenter software package, which is being refashioned as a storage management suite capable of managing SAN elements from various vendors. If ControlCenter actually proves to be a capable heterogeneous storage management tool, it will replace the variety of hardware-specific storage management tools that RBC now uses, giving Durnford's group the ability to manage any SAN from a single console.

So far, says Durnford, RBC has concluded that, while ControlCenter doesn't provide the richness of information that a storage management tool native to a specific piece of hardware can, it may do enough.

"It looks like [ControlCenter] will provide a scaled-down view, the basic nuts and bolts stuff you would expect," says Durnford. "But some of the value add--details such as how the internal arrays of an IBM Shark are laid out, for example--I don't think we're going to see that in the product. The question is--is that information important enough, or can you go with a more generic view?" RBC is still evaluating that question.

Also under review is the idea of creating large storage utilities that could be managed centrally and accessed remotely. RBC is trying out the idea first on tape backup, providing remote access from a tape SAN to its Toronto-based Capital Markets business unit using dark fiber to support a LAN-free ISL. Capital Markets will use the link to tap into tape backup located in an RBC site about one mile away. If that works, says Durnford, the company will use the same approach to provide remote tape backup to a business unit 30 miles north of Toronto. And if that works, RBC will look at using dark fiber and ISLs to provide remote SAN disk storage.

"It depends on the proof of concept," says Durnford. "Tape is not very sensitive when it comes to things like latency, and disk is. We'll look at it, and based on what we see, we may be able to go back to one of the business units and say, 'If you need additional disk storage, why not use the switches and connections we already have in place for tape? The disk storage doesn't really need to be right next to your server. It can be over in our building.'"

The ability to build storage utilities that can be accessed remotely would take SAN consolidation to an entirely new level. But it won't happen overnight. Not only must the dark fiber connections and ISLs first be tested, but such large SANs will also require fast, 4Gb switches that are just now under development. And at RBC and many companies, it will require business unit managers to accept the idea that they can give up direct, local management of stored data without losing control of other risks.

AXA Group's major consolidation push
RBC isn't the only large financial institution driving toward storage area network (SAN) consolidation. $85-billion AXA Group, with corporate headquarters in New York City, has also launched a major push to merge SAN islands and direct-attached storage (DAS) into fewer, larger and more manageable SANs.

But while both RBC and AXA see just-in-time storage provisioning as a major benefit, they're going about consolidation in different ways. RBC is taking a phased approach, and AXA is mounting a frontal assault, simultaneously consolidating SANs in all six of its major countries of operation and pulling together storage for servers running Windows and a variety of Unix flavors.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, AXA plans to consolidate 15 SAN islands in six different countries to six SANs--one in each country. Coupled with a major server consolidation effort, the SAN consolidation project will enable AXA to cut overall storage needs--currently about 250TB in all--by between 40% and 50% by improving disk utilization, says Ron Roberts, global program manager for server/storage consolidation. By consolidating SANs and managing them in a consistent way around the globe, AXA will install capacity before it's needed, but pay only as it is used.

But why the decision to consolidate SANs simultaneously around the globe rather than in a less-risky phased fashion? Doing so will allow AXA to consolidate quicker and gain significant benefits sooner. "It is ambitious," says Roberts. "But in order to allow us to achieve the greatest savings in the shortest period of time, it's being parallelized."

AXA's recent acquisition history--including its 1992 purchase of The Equitable Companies--contributed to the SAN island proliferation, Roberts says. Until 2001, different units of the company had their own IT organizations and made their own decisions on storage. So AXA ended up with a wide variety of storage platforms and operating systems and a proliferation of servers and SANs. Besides the 15 SANs worldwide, AXA has about 5,000 Unix and Windows servers. The company is consolidating them and expects to end up with fewer than 1,000.

Groundwork for the consolidation efforts was laid in 2001, Roberts says, when AXA centralized control over its IT infrastructure into AXA Technology Services. Under CEO Leon Billis, the unit set out to consolidate and standardize IT infrastructure and to move to a just-in-time utility model for procurement under which AXA would neither purchase nor lease equipment but simply pay for capacity. Earlier this year, AXA signed a $1 billion "Infrastructure on Demand" deal with IBM Global Services.

On the storage side, the company has standardized on Cisco switches for its SAN fabric and on Hitachi Data Systems Lightning and IBM Shark storage devices. Some AXA country operations will use HDS devices, others IBM. Native IBM and HDS storage management software tools will be used. Overall, AXA will end up with 50% HDS storage and 50% IBM.

While AXA is attempting to consolidate SANs in its six operating countries at the same time, the company does plan to leverage best practices and lessons learned as much as possible between countries. Like RBC, AXA's IT organization has been performing compatibility testing and will share knowledge about what works with what.

In addition, AXA is running unique pilots in some countries. The results of those pilots will be shared with other countries. Three countries, for example, are currently testing a variety of application workloads to determine how best to architect both the SANs and consolidated servers. Results of those tests will be shared with all AXA's country operations via weekly meetings, workshops and collaborative Web sites, Roberts says.

This was first published in November 2003

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