Shawn Partridge, vice president of IT at Rockford Construction Co. Inc., instantly recognized the potential benefits for a hybrid cloud storage appliance for SharePoint data storage when he caught a presentation last year at a meeting of the West Michigan Network Technology User Group.
Rockford's 165 employees use Microsoft's SharePoint Server to store blueprints, change orders, quotes, drawings and other important documents. SharePoint uses a SQL Server database to store the data. Partridge noticed poor performance with video files and large quantities of continuous data as the system tried to break the files into individual blocks.
StorSimple Inc.'s 10 TB StorSimple 1010 appliance and Microsoft's Remote BLOB Service (RBS) offered a compelling alternative. RBS -- a SQL Server add-on that StorSimple makes available -- could intercept the data and write only the metadata to the database and direct the file content, or binary large objects (BLOBs), to a Windows file server, which could write the data to a StorSimple volume via an iSCSI connection.
Partridge said offloading SharePoint data storage to the StorSimple appliance, in connection with an upgrade from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2010, shrank the SQL database from 300 GB to less than 30 GB and, in so doing, significantly improved performance. Plus, storing SharePoint data on the hybrid cloud appliance gave Rockford access to limitless storage with its public cloud service, Microsoft's Azure.
"We originally went into it purely for the SharePoint, and that was the only thing we were expecting to do," Partridge said. "We just keep on finding more and more things to do with it."
Rockford extended the use of its StorSimple appliance -- which supports solid-state drive (SSD) and public cloud tiers -- to backups and archives. It uses StorSimple's CloudClones to store point-in-time deduplicated copies to the cloud every day. Partridge expects that will enable him to eliminate use of Veeam Software Corp.'s Backup & Replication virtual machine (VM) backup software.
"As much as I love Veeam, once I have all of my VMs on the StorSimple [appliance] as my primary storage, I won't need backup software because it's already integrated," Partridge said. "That's a huge advantage. I'll have one device that's going to be my primary storage, my backup storage and my archive. And it's going to be doing all of my disaster recovery as well. It's definitely going to simplify our environment."
According to Partridge, Rockford currently stores more than 7.35 TB at a cost of 15 cents per gigabyte with Microsoft Azure. The breakdown is slightly more than 1 TB of file data, approximately 350 GB of SharePoint data and 6 TB of backup data.
"The big advantage is that, as it expands, you're not paying for anything other than space," he said. "You're never buying additional disk."
The StorSimple appliance is an iSCSI target. It includes predefined volume types so customers can simply choose the right one when creating the volume. Rockford controls the frequency of CloudClones but trusts the appliance to automatically put the most active data on the fastest tier and move data when any given tier fills up.
Partridge said he hopes to eventually replace Rockford's pair of aging iSCSI SANs with the StorSimple appliances. In late January, the IT staff preconfigured its second StorSimple appliance -- the 5010, which supports tiers of solid-state, SAS and cloud storage -- to grow to 50 TB. So far, it has moved three of the company's 30 VMware Inc. virtual machines and 4 TB of data to the appliance.
"Basically the biggest challenge is getting comfortable with storing data on the cloud, period," Partridge said. "I mean, that's a scary process."
Partridge said he wouldn't have considered using the cloud for primary data without the multiple levels of security that hybrid cloud appliances provide. The StorSimple system deduplicates data at the block level and encrypts the packets before sending them across the wire to Microsoft Azure.
"For somebody to get into that data, they would have to be able to break into the account, be able to decrypt and then be able to try to rebuild the data," Partridge said. "I just don't see how anybody could ever do that. And if they ever did, somebody's going to be very disappointed with what's in there."
Hybrid cloud can alleviate performance fears
Performance is the other critical hurdle for companies to overcome as they consider offloading data to a public cloud, but the local cache of a hybrid cloud appliance can alleviate some of the fear.
"People think of cloud storage as very slow, high latency and poor performance," Partridge said. "If you're doing just straight cloud storage, that probably would be accurate. But once you go into hybrid, it changes the game completely."
Partridge said he was surprised to find performance improve with the addition of each subsequent virtual machine to the StorSimple appliance. He speculated that happened because the servers are built off the same image, and the appliance deduplicates those images and stores the information on SSDs that are faster than the SATA drives on the company's old arrays from Hifn Inc. (which was acquired by Exar Corp. in 2009).
The deduplication rate varies based on data type, but Partridge said he has seen reduction in the range of 40% to 50% in some cases. For Rockford Construction, the only potential data with no local copy is archive, but because the archived data is deduplicated, the transfer from the cloud can potentially occur more quickly.
If an especially large data set, such as a video, happens to be stored only in the cloud, the appliance can stream the file to the user. "Say it's a 600 MB file that's a video," Partridge said. "It doesn't have to wait for all 600 MB of it to come down. It's going to pull it down and start streaming it in real-time to you, so you don't even see that there's any difference."
The major pain point is the initial data upload from the appliance to the cloud. Partridge acknowledged that last fall's transfer of 1 TB of archived data over a 3 Mbps network was very slow. But the company has since moved to a 30 Mbps pipe, with a burst-speed of 50 Mbps, as part of a network upgrade plan that pre-dated the StorSimple purchase.
"It's night-and-day difference," he said.