A pioneer's prescription for SAN implementation

A SAN pioneer shares his trail blazing experience with those ready to make the move into (practically) uncharted territory.

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ORLANDO, Fla.-- When heading into storage area network (SAN) territory for the first time, sometimes it pays to follow the trail blazed by those who've fought the elements and lived to share their own hard-earned wisdom from the trenches.

SAN pioneer Brian Cobb, director of systems engineering for Fannie Mae Corp., who presented his SAN trials and tribulations at Storage Networking World in Orlando this week, knows this all too well. Cobb has already rolled out a number of SANs to various business groups in his organization and has this to say about the experience: "I wish it had been easier.!"

Cobb's prescriptions to those still in the early stages of evaluating a SAN purchase: "Do your homework, walk before you run, have a test environment and break things," he said.

Beyond breaking things, Cobb said it's vitally important to keep track of what goes wrong during your test phases. In other words, document what you see. During their early test periods at Fannie Mae, they experienced over 100 things going wrong, Cobb said.

Cobb's group currently manages over 160TB of data across multiple platforms and runs between 1200 to1400 servers across two geographically dispersed data centers. From the company's current mix of operating systems and platforms, Fannie Mae's IT infrastructure is much like the poster child for heterogeneous storage platforms.

Like many other IT shops, Cobb said his company's decision to investigate SANs related to many of the same business drivers that motivate other IT groups: pressure to reduce cost and improve efficiency; server and storage growth rates on the order of between 30% to 50% a year; improving their backup infrastructure; and the need to replace a series of JBOD disk arrays that were reaching the end of their life cycle. Fannie Mae was also experiencing an extra load on their storage systems, due to the recent wave of refinancing.

Fannie Mae was also in danger of allowing its heterogeneous platforms to get out of control, with different vendors promoting different products. What they needed, Cobb said, was a clearly defined SAN architecture from which to select and implement the right solutions.

According to Cobb, the decision came down to a SAN architecture that best fit the company's business model. The organization is based on business "clusters" or departments -- each with its own set of servers, its own development and test teams. For them, it turned out that the best SAN architecture was a separate SAN island for each cluster, relying heavily on core/edge switches. They had another SAN in use for tape backup purposes.

Cobb said this step was essential for making the right SAN purchasing and implementation decisions. It's critical that you "understand up-front what your methodology is going to be when you adopt SANs," he said.

To assist them in coming to this conclusion, Cobb enlisted the aid of CNT to act in the role of systems integrator. Conducting an in-depth SAN assessment was key to Fannie Mae's success in this process, Cobb said. This included in-depth CNT interviews with each department head about his/her group's storage needs and completion of a number of other tasks.

What was the toughest part of the whole process? "Dealing with vendors in large heterogeneous environments -- making everybody play in the same SAN box," he said.

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