No more kneepads, thanks to SAN

SAN helped BCBS of Tennessee save money, reduce disk purchases and increase utilization of existing storage capacity.

(Editor's note: The next three issues of Storage Innovators will spotlight the winners of the SearchStorage Innovator Awards, which were presented March 20 in Chicago. This week we look at the winner in the TCO category.)

Reducing cost of ownership is the driving force behind BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's IT decisions, but sometimes those costs are hard to figure. How do you set a value on unhappy wives? Or pants worn out at the knees? Or bad moods after sleepless nights? These are the added costs that BCBS of Tennessee hoped to eliminate with a new storage system.

Chattanooga-based BCBS arranges the payment of healthcare benefits for more than 2.9 million people each year. To run the myriad applications it takes to process more than five billion dollars in claims, the company utilizes one IBM OS/390 mainframe system, 24 servers running the IBM AIX Unix operating system, and 150 Microsoft Windows NT-based servers.

The problem the IT staff faced was managing the 9 terabytes of Serial Storage Architecture disk subsystem that was directly attached to this variety of servers. "We were wearing holes in the knees of our pants cabling these systems," said Dean Holland, senior system administrator. "This system required a lot of cabling and management work, most of which had to be done after hours--at midnight."

It was also a pretty severe management task to keep track of the disks, physically and logically. "With each disk, we had to track where it was, how it was cabled, what was on it, and so on and so on," said Roger Hibbs, senior system administrator for BCBS.

Once a disk was installed in one place, it was hard to pull it back for use elsewhere. "Even though we had unallocated disks, we were buying new disks because we couldn't get to the disks we had," said Bob Venable, BCBS manager of enterprise systems. In fact, allocation limitations sometimes reduced disk utilization to 60%.

A major re-cable to move disk space for a shift in a server's workload or a new application required down time for the two servers involved for as long as half a weekend.

Each system had its own "merry-go-round with it's own disk farm," said Hibbs. "We needed to do something to homogenize this so we could share disk space between servers easily."

The IT team decided that a Fibre Channel-based Storage Area Network would give them the throughput, allocation flexibility, and simple, centralized management features they needed. "We wanted to have one set of free space that was available to all three platforms," said Venable. "With a SAN, we could allow all three platforms to pull from the same storage system."

After doing some online research, they decided to take a closer look at SAN Systems from San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and McDATA Corp. of Broomfield, Colo.

McDATA's close association with IBM, particularly as a supplier of IBM's ESCON Director technologies, won the nod from BCBS. In addition to using IBM mainframe and Unix technologies, BCBS had been using IBM's ESCON Director technologies for ten years "without a single problem," said Venable.

"We didn't spend a whole lot of time searching because it didn't appear at the time that anyone had a competitive product," said Hibbs. "No one had the background experience that McDATA had."

BCBS chose a storage system configuration that included IBM Enterprise Storage Servers, Windows NT-based servers, two McDATA Galaxy-class 6000 series directors, two 3000 Series 32-port switches and two 1000 series loop switches. The mainframe system would not be included in the SAN, at first.

The system is managed by McDATA's SANavigator heterogeneous storage network management software. SANavigator was the icing on the cake for BCBS, said Venable. Rather than physically running around from device to device, the IT team can use SANavigator to handle management tasks -- monitoring SAN devices, doing cost and capacity planning, and allocating storage -- from a central location.

The SAN installation team had to adhere to a tight 24-hour deadline. "We had another vendor showing up the next day to install software and had no way to get to the disks we needed," said Hibbs. In preparation, the team studied the McDATA CD-ROM install tutorial and print documentation. The McDATA configurators and product manager code were so straightforward that the team made the deadline.

Soon after the installation, the new SAN system's management tools prevented an unnecessary purchase of a $120,000 disk server. "The NT folks felt they needed their own disk server," said Venable. "SANavigator showed that they were only using 20% of their bandwidth." So, the NT group worked to increase utilization instead.

BCBS-Tennessee is saving money every day in reduced disk purchases and increased utilization of existing storage capacity, according to Venable. But he appreciates the reduction in human effort even more. He estimates that the IT team is saving more than 50 hours a month in storage systems management time. Most of that time would have been nights and weekends. "We've got happier wives now," said Venable. "We've got an IT team that's in a good mood during the day because they aren't here until midnight." Those benefits are priceless.

For additional information about McDATA, visit its Web site.

For more information about BCBS, visit its Web site.

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This was first published in March 2002

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