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Data storage consolidation guidelines

Consolidation sounds good, but here are some guidelines to determine if it will work for you. Plus, seven steps to getting it done.

Storage services groups are all about delivering business value while reducing IT costs. In support of these goals, many companies begin a storage services effort by consolidating distributed direct-attached storage (DAS) devices into a shared storage area network (SAN). And although the results can certainly be rewarding, not everyone should immediately start storage consolidation planning and budget allocation. How can you tell if a storage consolidation project is right for your enterprise? You're a prime candidate if your storage environment has one or more of the following conditions:

Storage allocation problems impact business initiatives. Remember, we're talking about storage services. If the IT team struggles to allocate disk resources and move data for application development and testing, it's not meeting the business requirements. Storage consolidation and the right processes can certainly help alleviate this problem.

Seven steps to SANs
1. Baseline your current environment.
2. Get a detailed inventory of your servers and disks.
3. Classify your data.
4. Enlist the help of other IT functional groups.
5. Dedicate a support team.
6. Select your hardware vendors.
7. Choose a service partner.

Many DAS boxes are colocated with servers in a common data center. This is a perfect environment for storage consolidation. If servers and their associated DAS systems are distributed, you're in for a storage and server consolidation project, which is much more complex.

Disk utilization varies or storage growth rates soar. Does your company have several DAS boxes that need constant upgrades, while others run at 20% to 30% utilization for months on end? This is a classic problem where server consolidation can help balance utilization rates while decreasing capital costs. Alternatively, an environment which experiences constant dynamic growth will benefit from a high-bandwidth, high-capacity consolidated storage architecture.

Storage administration is a bottleneck. Rule No. 1 in operations is to find the bottleneck and fix the bottleneck. If administering numerous DAS boxes puts the IT staff is in a state of constant fire fighting, you've found a bottleneck. Storage consolidation can address this issue. According to Gartner, a storage admin can manage up to 500% more capacity in a consolidated storage infrastructure.

Storage consolidation projects can help overcome any of the shortcomings described earlier, but these projects are complex undertakings by themselves. Most IT shops are running lean these days, so it's not likely you have adequate bench strength or skills to do a storage consolidation project alone. Before you choose a services partner, be prepared to initiate a few upfront tasks:

Baseline your current environment. Yogi Berra once said, "If you don't know where you're goin,' any road will get you there." The only way you'll know what kind of ROI you can achieve with a storage consolidation project is to establish a baseline for key metrics before you begin. Calculate your average disk utilization. Figure out how long it takes to allocate storage space or move data for an application development group. Determine how much storage capacity each administrator is capable of managing. Put dollar figures to all of the metrics. When the storage consolidation project is completed, you'll want to track these metrics over time and strive for constant improvement.

Get a detailed inventory of your servers and disks. You'll absolutely need a complete and accurate inventory of your server environment before you design a consolidated storage solution. Make sure to get information about revision levels, patches installed, firmware and BIOS versions. You may be able to get some of this information from an asset management system report, but much of this data can only be gathered through manual processes. If you do this work ahead of time, it will help ease integration and compatibility issues during the design and implementation phases of the project.

Classify your data. Data classification will help you find and get rid of files that are rarely open, consume an undue amount of space or are inappropriate for a work environment. The junior help desk administrator's MP3 collection of live Grateful Dead shows doesn't belong on the corporate file server, and certainly doesn't need to be consolidated in an expensive new storage infrastructure. On the other hand, you'll need to identify the most critical data to plan appropriate system design, migration strategies and data protection processes. Software tools from vendors such as Astrum Software, Sun/HighGround, and TrelliSoft that inventory data can help here.

Enlist the help of other IT functional groups. Storage consolidation conjures up an image of Fibre Channel (FC) switches and big RAID boxes, but the scope of a consolidation project goes way beyond just storage. For the project to succeed, you'll need help from database administrators to understand database storage requirements and growth patterns. Network engineers must be included to build an IP-based out-of-band management architecture. The chief information security officer will need to review software tools, physical and logical design plans and administration processes to find and fix any security holes. Finally, application and server administrators will need to plan ahead for downtime and server migrations. Give these folks plenty of time to schedule necessary tasks and keep them updated on progress as the project plays out.

Dedicate a support team. Consider early storage consolidation projects as important learning experiences. Key members of the storage engineering and operations group should be involved throughout to manage the project and takeover when appropriate. For example, to avoid compatibility problems, it's critically important that one of your storage vendor's field technicians help migrate the first few servers. Once the server migration process is established, internal IT resources can take over to gain experience and keep overall project costs in line.

Select your hardware vendor(s). The selection of the right RAID devices, HBAs and FC switches should be subject to your standard price, availability and market share buying criteria. In addition, you'll want to carefully examine your vendor's hardware compatibility matrix to make sure that everything you already have or purchase is supported. If the vendor has a limited list or can't produce one, throw them out. During the migration phase, you may find inaccuracies in the compatibility matrix. Make sure you have a good relationship with your vendor's technical staff so you can work through these problems as they arise.

Choose a service partner. The success of the project will depend on a good working relationship between the IT staff and a service partner. Large storage vendors such as EMC, HPQ, IBM, and Sun all have service groups with much experience in storage consolidation. If you've had good experiences with one of these vendors, by all means proceed. If you have any hesitation about a conflict of interest, choose a third-party storage service expert. The entire storage consolidation project should take anywhere from four to eight months, depending upon how much storage is involved and how well the project is run. Following the seven steps (see "Seven steps to SANs," this page) should help ensure smooth sailing. On a more granular level, expect the assessment and design phases to take one to two months and allow two to four months for implementation, test and server migration. Each server will take from four to 12 hours to migrate, and will be longer at first when you're learning the ropes.

Consolidated SAN-based storage is a proven infrastructure that can deliver impressive results for the business and IT. If your enterprise exhibits any of the characteristics detailed earlier, then storage consolidation may be a good step toward improvement. By following the seven steps I suggested, your storage services staff should be able to meet tight schedules, maintain budget restrictions and deliver benefits to business and IT constituents.

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