Virtualization eases file migration

WHILE MANY USERS are still grappling with the benefits of file virtualization, some who have deployed it say it can eliminate the downtime associated with data migration and simplify storage provisioning.

Blackboard Inc., Washington, D.C., develops and hosts e-learning software used by more than 3 million students at approximately 500 schools and higher education institutions. Hosted customers store their data across several Network Appliance filers with aggregate capacity of 100TB, says Ahmar Abbas, Blackboard's VP of ASP services. The content--papers, quizzes, discussion threads, etc.--is growing at 65% to 85% per year, and volumes fill up quickly.

But unlike traditional businesses that shut down after 5 p.m. or on weekends, there's no good time for Blackboard to do maintenance like data migration. "In higher education, our busiest time is Sundays from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.," he says, as students log on to the system to prepare for the week ahead. "For K-12 schools, it's from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m."

Last fall, Abbas brought in NeoPath Networks' File Director to help with space management. "Before NeoPath, we'd call a client and say, 'We're going to take you down for 10 to 12 hours while we move the data around.' They didn't like that," he says. Now "we can move client data around without the client even noticing."

Ibis Consulting Inc., a Providence, RI-based litigation support and e-discovery firm, sometimes adds 1 million files per day to its two clustered BlueArc Titan NAS systems. Ibis' challenge had been estimating how much space to assign to a project. "Sometimes when we take on a project, instead of it being a couple of hundred gigs, it's a couple of terabytes; we'd run out of storage and then have to stop, roll back and move to a new share," says Andrew Beeber, Ibis' manager of IT.

Instead of guessing how much space it'll need, Ibis virtualized its NAS environment behind Acopia ARX switches that divvied up its capacity into three virtual mount points--one for each major phase of data processing. "Acopia streamlines the management of our storage," says Beeber, "and if we want to move data around, we can do it transparently to our [data] process."

These products migrate files with ease because clients no longer interact with the file servers directly; they go through a single virtual mount point. Virtualized files may be in transit from one filer to another, but the users requesting them are none the wiser; the virtualization layer directs read and write requests to the appropriate location.

Of course, network file virtualization players bring more functionality to the table than just migration, says Brad O'Neill, senior analyst and consultant at Taneja Group, Hopkinton, MA, such as enabling tiered storage and load balancing. But most early adopters are using it for file migration, plain and simple. "It's not the sexiest thing, but it's a huge problem," says O'Neill.

--Alex Barrett

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