The health care provider, which serves 400,000 patients each year, had few options for solving the problem. "Since we are in health care, we are constantly monitoring our costs," he explained. "Purchasing additional space for our computers would raise our operating expenses, so instead we had to squeeze more hardware into our environment."
Slowing down the server growth was impossible, but the firm could free up some space by moving away from a series of direct-attached storage (DAS) devices to a storage area network (SAN), the path that it is currently following.
The server growth stemmed from changes among the health care provider's top software suppliers. They were shifting development away from Novell and Unix platforms, which the hospital had relied on, to the Microsoft operating system. Rather than risk technical obsolescence, St. Vincent started to place more of its applications on the Microsoft platform -- although the move was made begrudgingly.
"Software vendors seem to be following Microsoft's
As it was searching for a solution to its data center challenge, St. Vincent had already begun to view its DAS setup as inefficient. "We had 9T bytes of storage installed, but were only using about 1.8 of it," Porter explained. "A lot of the space was taken up by items like extra copies [of] various operating systems that we really didn't need."
Upgrades were also difficult. Whenever a server needed more storage, the IT staff had to find open slots in the server and storage system. Sometimes, there was an opening in a server, but the storage system was too far away to be connected.
Rather than continue with this mode of operation, the company started investigating SANs. "We wanted to get past the blue-sky proposals and understand what these products could actually do for us," explained Porter.
In early 2001, the health care provider sent requests for proposals to leading SAN suppliers: Compaq Computer Corp., EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and XIOtech Corp. St. Vincent's IT staff spent its time learning about basic SAN concepts, determining how the different products were designed and trying to determine which company had the soundest technical foundation.
Next, the firm had the vendors come into the health care provider's data center and install their equipment. "We really didn't care about how the products functioned in the vendors' test labs; we wanted to see how it ran in our environment," Porter said.
The process proved enlightening. A few suppliers could not get their equipment operating at all, some did not support Novell servers and others required a few days before they had all of the components operating.
St. Vincent does not believe in outsourcing, preferring to rely on its own IT staff to operate its equipment. So, the selection criteria centered on which system was simplest to install. The winning bid came from Eden Prairie, Minn.-based XIOtech and San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade Communications Systems Inc. The proposal included XIOtech's Magnitude storage server and Brocade's SilkWorm fabric switches.
Last fall, the health care company began the installation and the IT staff had the system running in a few days. The SAN has a core-to-edge network design and features two separate fabrics in a redundant configuration. In total, 12 SilkWorm 2800 switches were located on the edge, a pair of SilkWorm 12000 switches operate at the core, and the devices access information stored in the XIOtech server.
St. Vincent has been dabbling with various features, such as 8-way clustering across two redundant SANs. The health care company has also begun to migrate SilkWorm 3800 switches, which offer a 2G bit/sec data path.
As the infrastructure takes shape, the enterprise has begun moving a few of its Novell applications (file and print, common drives, GroupWise) to the SAN. Once that work is finished later this year, the hospital plans to turn its attention to moving the Microsoft applications.
Gradually, the firm has begun freeing up some space in the data center. "We know that we will have to stay in our current data center for at least another three or four years," said Porter. "If we [hadn't taken] some steps to free up some space, it would become an awfully crowded place in a year or two."
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in networking issues. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
For more information on St. Vincent Hospital check out its Web site.
Addional information on XIOtech can be found here.
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This was first published in November 2002