Strategic Storage: Eyeing IP storage

IP storage is more cost-effective. Fibre Channel is more reliable. Read about a few early adopters of IP and see which approach might make the most sense for your enterprise.

To Gary Johnson, Internet Protocol is a Godsend. Johnson is architectural consultant for Carlson Companies, a hospitality conglomerate whose holdings include restaurant chain T.G.I. Friday's, Radisson Hotels & Resorts, Park Plaza Hotels, Country Inns & Suites and Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

As Carlson launched e-business initiatives, the need to share data between the different operating companies quickly became apparent, but no uniformity existed between its storage strategies. T.G.I. Friday's data center in Dallas uses NAS boxes by Network Appliance Inc. to support an Oracle database. Radisson's reservation centers in Omaha, Neb., use EMC Corp.'s Symmetrix arrays and McData Corp.'s Fibre Channel switches for a SAN. Some locations even have small Fibre Channel SANs.

Johnson's job is to turn storage into a strategic resource and eliminate redundant expenditures. Its revamped architecture includes an IP-based SAN in its Minneapolis headquarters. Capital cost for IP storage technologies totaled about $2 million, but Johnson said savings are expected through more efficient operations.

"Rather than building a different network for storage, it makes more sense to leverage our IT environment and move storage via IP," Johnson said. "Plus, we're also looking at a project to deliver phone and video 'services' by deploying VoIP."

Fibre Channel remains the dominant protocol for SANs, largely because of its inherent reliability as a dedicated storage pipe. Still, Carlson's migration to IP represents how the market is changing. Fibre Channel hardware remains pricey for many enterprises. Conversely, Internet bandwidth can be purchased at commodity prices and gives enterprises a more intuitive technology for storage, according to storage analysts.

"The primary motivator to use IP SANs is cost," said Michael Fisch, an analyst with Clipper Group in Wellesley, Mass. "IP is something that enterprises understand, whereas Fibre Channel requires expertise in 'an entirely separate' network protocol."

Other noteworthy developments relating to IP SANs include ratification of the iSCSI protocol by the Internet Engineering Task Force and Microsoft Corp.'s decision to embed support for iSCSI in its driver software. Vendors are flooding the market with new IP arrays, routers and TCP/IP cards for servers and storage resources to communicate -- momentum that suggests more companies are exploring their options.

Turning tactics to practice
Southern Insurance Underwriters Inc. (SIU) is one such example. The Alpharetta, Ga., company built an IP-based SAN about a year ago. Previously, new SCSI arrays were attached as servers approached capacity.

SIU considered a configuration of NAS boxes, but quickly nixed the idea after a cost comparison, said Robert Filipovich, SIU's IT manager. Instead, SIU saved about 400% by using StoneFly Networks Inc.'s Storage Concentrator, which provides up to 2.2 terabytes (TB) of capacity, and StoneFly's storage-provisioning software. Storage arrays by Nexsan Technologies of Woodland Hills, Calif., are attached to the back of the Stonefly device. Three SCSI ports, each capable of supporting up to 15 storage devices, enable SIU to scale the $30,000 network at low cost.

"We were going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for several terabytes of storage, and then thousands and thousands of dollars more every time we wanted to add a server. Instead, we've been able to bring our storage cost down to about a penny a megabyte," Filipovich said.

Likewise, Carlson Companies is pushing more storage onto its IP network by using a blend of high-end hardware and server-based software. Its main storage network in Minneapolis features a Hewlett-Packard Co. XP512 array providing 10 TB of capacity. At the edge of the network sit Fibre Channel switches by Nishan Systems (now owned by McData), while Cisco Corp.'s Gigabit Ethernet switches reside at the network core.

Being run in beta mode is IPStor, a suite of server-based enterprise software by Melville, N.Y.-based FalconStor. IPStor enables software to mimic storage hardware, and possibly reduce huge capital costs, Johnson said. IPStor software addresses another need -- getting files backed up daily from the various data centers and, more importantly, 6,000 remote offices scattered across the globe. "We're in a position now where we can replicate data from all remote sites to our main data center. Plus, we're looking at two primary data,centers and replicating the data between them across the network to other data,centers as well, which will help us meet off-site requirements," Johnson said.

Take security precautions
If you're sending sensitive information from storage devices to applications, and those applications will be accessed via public networks, you'll need to harden your data. This may mean building a virtual private network that makes a tunnel around the information and lets it be seen only by authorized users. Or, it may mean encrypting data packets at one end and decrypting them at the other.

"You can't just plug storage (devices) into your IP network and assume everything is going to be fine," said Dianne McAdam, a senior analyst and partner with Data Mobility Group in Nashua, N.H. "If you use a public network, be aware of the technologies for securing your data." SIU's network accommodates millions of electronic financial transactions each month. The information, while not encrypted, is transmitted across a virtual local area network (VLAN) that takes advantage of IP technologies.

"By running it totally off of the network on a VLAN, data never touches the Internet backbone," said Robert Filipovich, SIU's IT manager.

How fast is too slow?
Ranking close behind security is the issue of network performance. Storage administrators should ponder several questions as they proceed down the IP path, according to McAdam. "When you start hooking storage up to your existing IP network, the thing you have to ask is, 'How big is my pipe?'," McAdam said. "Will my applications suffer? Do I want to put storage on its own little network and isolate it from other traffic?"

Another way to avoid network slowdown is to use both Fibre Channel and IP technologies in tiered storage, Clipper Group's Fisch said. That enables you to segment highly sensitive business data from data that is accessed only occasionally. "That is the type of configuration we're beginning to see in larger enterprises," he said.

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