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Special Supplement: 10 ways to trim storage costs

Despite tight budgets, the demand for storage continues to grow. Here are some tips to cut some of the fat out of your storage systems and save a few dollars in the process.

Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

Finding the most efficient ways to buy and use storage gear can save you big bucks.

Do you run out of disk capacity more often than planned? Is your storage budget maxed out months before the end of the year? The following 10 tips will help you stretch your storage budget, save money and get more out of your current technologies.

1) Archive or delete old files.
Archiving or deleting unnecessary data has the potential to give you the biggest savings at the lowest cost. Archiving or deleting data not only saves the costs associated with the original copy, it yields ongoing savings in terms of processor, I/O and secondary storage for your backups.

There are some files you can safely remove such as logs, message files, dump files or temporary files. If possible, automate these file deletions by scheduling Cleanmgr (Windows) or Skulker (various forms of Unix). You should also check with management to identify legal retention periods for archiving application data. For large databases, work with management or your DBA to identify records or rows that must be retained.

Once you've identified the data to be archived and its retention period, don't use a backup product to do the archiving unless it has built-in, discrete archiving features. Simply changing the retention period on your normal backups will leave records and data in your backup file set and backup product database (index or catalog) for an unusually long time. Large backup databases are the Achilles' heel of most backup products and constitute some of the largest files at the majority of companies. Before making technology purchases to handle archiving, understand your company's requirements. Unchangeable data storage may be one of the archive's requirements, and there's a wide range of choices for storing permanent data, from CD-ROMs that cost pennies apiece to content-addressable storage (CAS) systems that cost substantially more.


Storage August 2006 Special Supplement


Helpful storage performance tools

2) Streamline backups.
Backups can drain storage, network, server and staff resources. The best way to cut down on backups is to back up only the data that needs to be protected. Use the Windows search or Unix find commands to identify old, unaltered data. Work with management to understand the requirements of your recovery point objective. If your backup product has a full backup option, you may be able to do full backups less frequently and back up only the changed data daily.

Backup storage choices vary widely, from portable USB-interface 250GB to 500GB (Serial ATA) disk drives to large-capacity automated tape and virtual tape libraries. Make sure you understand your business requirements and size your backup systems accordingly. SATA can be used effectively for backups and is less expensive than its Fibre Channel (FC) and SCSI counterparts. Configured properly, SATA will perform very well for disk-to-disk backups or as a disk buffer pool before data is moved to tape. If you opt for SATA for your disk buffer pool, verify that the disks' read performance is high enough to keep the tape drives spinning--stop-and-start cycles on tape drives can dramatically decrease backup performance.

Many CAS systems use a checksum technology to determine if a block or stream of data resides on the system; if the data is already there, it won't keep any of the subsequent copies. This enables you to use less storage and reduce network bandwidth requirements if you're backing up data to a CAS system at a remote site. The efficiency of these systems will depend on your data. The one downside to using CAS systems today is that they're all proprietary.

There are many things to take into consideration with your backup server. Don't overlook using an x86-based backup server instead of a more expensive RISC system. If you're using an x86 backup server with Windows (Windows 2003 is preferred for its performance), matching input and output bandwidth will make the most efficient use of the backup server. Use test tools like Qcheck (network performance test), Iometer (disk IO performance test for Windows) or IOzone (disk IO performance for Unix and Windows) to get a performance baseline and to ensure that your system is performing at its rated throughput (see "Helpful storage performance tools," this page). If the throughput doesn't match the rated speeds, check your operating system parameters. If you're running Gigabit Ethernet, consider using jumbo packets to improve performance.


Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

3) Size your SAN/NAS properly.
An underdesigned SAN may not be reliable and its performance may suffer. However, going overboard when designing a SAN means you'll likely spend more than you should and make maintenance tougher than it should be. There are three mainstream choices for a storage network topology: FC, iSCSI and NAS. FC is a storage-specific protocol and the highest performance storage network available. The latter two technologies can use an existing TCP/IP network. iSCSI has the smallest market share of the three, but is quickly gaining in popularity (see "iSCSI: Low-cost alternative to FC"). iSCSI encapsulates SCSI commands in a TCP/IP packet, and its pricing is generally midway between that of NAS and FC.

The most common storage network topology is NAS, which is typically the least expensive of the three choices. One advantage NAS has is its ability to share a file among multiple systems without additional software.

4) Do it yourself.
Pulling your own fiber cables and finishing them with connectors instead of having patch panels installed can save you thousands of dollars. Be sure to label both ends of your cables so that you can find them if there's an issue. Keep in mind that while the cables are tough, they are glass and can fracture if stressed. Be sure to check local building codes to verify your compliance with all local fire codes.

If it's feasible, install new software or hardware yourself instead of using a vendor's services. If a vendor requires installation services for its product, you might consider competing products with an easier installation process. When a product is complicated to install, it will often be more complicated--and costly--to maintain.


Storage August 2006 Special Supplement


A sampling of storage user groups

5) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.
The first rule of purchasing is to get quotes from more than one vendor because competition usually lowers prices. When seeking bids, make sure vendors understand that you're serious about making a purchase; when comparing bids, be sure to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Compare the quotes you receive for new storage gear with other members of your local user group using $/MB or $/port (see "A sampling of storage user groups," at right). List any questions or concerns you might have and then discuss those issues with the referral customers supplied by each vendor. When you've completed your research, renegotiate with the vendor.

Once you've decided on a product, find out when the vendor's financial quarter ends; sometimes the quarterly crunch to make sales numbers can motivate the vendor to offer additional discounts.

6) Buy used equipment.
If you don't need the latest gee-whiz technologies, you can save a big chunk of change by purchasing used equipment. Even if a storage technology is one or two generations old, it may still meet your requirements for performance and resiliency. Be sure to check the maintenance costs for hardware and software before buying used products. If you find the maintenance costs to be excessive, check into third-party support. A potential issue with used equipment may be that the software license isn't transferable, which requires working with the OEM to get a new license. Another concern is replacement parts. If the seller has spare parts on hand, buy them now in anticipation of future needs.

7) Use appliances and specialized systems.
Specialized storage appliances, such as an appliance for e-mail backup, archiving and reporting, can save money over trying to accomplish these tasks with a general-purpose backup system. Another example is a wide-area file services (WAFS) system for remote offices. If your company has remote offices with servers supporting DHCP, domain controller, file, print or e-mail, WAFS systems can replace these functions and their servers at the remote sites while maintaining data at the central office. This will also make backup and disaster recovery for remote sites easier. Because these systems reduce the amount of data to be transmitted, they can cut your network usage and reap additional savings.


Storage August 2006 Special Supplement

8) Don't overlook small vendors.
Weigh the pros and cons of working with a startup vendor. Small vendors are eager for your business, so they often provide exceptional support. And you may have greater input and leverage concerning the future direction and features of their products than if you dealt with a larger, more established vendor. Working with a startup isn't without its hazards, however. The startup may be purchased by a larger storage vendor that isn't on your company's preferred vendor list, it may lack the resources to keep its product current or it could go out of business.

9) Creative staffing.
Personnel costs consume the largest piece of your storage budget. To lower these costs, hire an intern to monitor backups. This can be a win for you, the intern and the company. While the intern is keeping an eye on day-to-day operations, you can concentrate on performance and efficiency issues in your storage and backup environments. Check with your local community college to see if they have a storage-specific curriculum. Work with the instructors to see which student may be a good fit with your needs and the company's culture.

Backups can consume much of your time and money. In the long run, it may be less costly to forego hiring backup specialists and to outsource this aspect of your storage infrastructure. There are plenty of outsourcing companies that can take over your backup operations.

10) Virtualization.
If i had to pick one technology to save your firm money, it would be host OS virtualization. The majority of the open systems installed today run on x86 CPU architecture systems. VMware (ESX, GSX Workstation), Microsoft Corp. (Virtual Server, Virtual PC) and the open-source Xen allow you to run multiple hosts on a single system, which reduces the number of servers you need to buy and support.

Storage virtualization can provide similar benefits. There are different forms of disk virtualization, but each technique creates a single storage pool from different subsystems. Disk virtualization can dramatically raise capacity levels on all of the storage subsystems within the storage pool.

Another form of virtualization is a virtual tape subsystem, which originated in the mainframe world more than 10 years ago. Before mainframe tape virtualization, approximately 10% of the average tape surface was used. After implementing mainframe tape virtualization, average usage increased to more than 60%. While open-systems tape virtualization may not produce the same level of savings, there are other reasons to give it serious consideration. Open-systems tape virtualization offers a boost in performance and the ability to share a tape robotic system with multiple servers and backup products. Most open-systems tape virtualization technologies use SATA disk as a cache or for permanent storage.

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