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Users warm up to virtualized storage

Support fears resolved, users take tentative steps toward virtualizing mixed vendor environments.

Storage managers are slowly but surely discovering that the benefits of virtualizing their storage environments outweigh the fears around support conflicts and interoperability issues.

For boating retailer MarineMax, located in the heart of hurricane country in Clearwater, Fla., a clearly defined arrangement that laid out the responsibilities of each vendor was paramount.

"You've got to be sure which piece of the puzzle is managing what -- we have a clear set of documents signed by everybody that shows that," said Brett McGill, vice president of IT at MarineMax.

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The company has an EMC Corp. CX500 at its main location and an older EMC Corp. 4700 array at its disaster recovery site. It uses IBM's SAN Volume Controller (SVC) virtualization software to replicate between the two. EMC's MirrorView replication software wasn't an option. For that "you have to have the same SAN on each side, so we couldn't mirror to the older array," McGill said.

He was apprehensive about bringing in a different vendor's product to make this happen but claims IBM "didn't care" what the hardware was. "Both parties said they would step up and do what's right if we had a problem." McGill was initially worried about interoperability and whether SVC would keep pace with systems from different vendors. But an in-depth look at IBM's road map reassured him.

McGill's one criticism of SVC was the hefty price tag, but he said "it's not that bad when you've been through five hurricanes."

Define lines of responsibility

Over in the U.K., the Open University (OU), a college with more than 200,000 distance learning students, discovered that it could improve the utilization of old and new storage systems by virtualizing them and managing them as a single resource.

The OU runs two EMC CX700s and about 40 terabytes (TB) of Sun Microsystems Inc. storage across a mixture of old arrays. However, virtualizing this into a single pool meant being certain about who would take responsibility if the overall solution failed.

Tony Ruane, sales director with Redstor Ltd., a U.K.-based storage integrator that architected the OU's storage environment, said the challenge is "getting vendors to see that there is a world outside of their technology." He added that "the big disk vendors are not that happy about having their stuff virtualized, so you have to be clear where the responsibility begins and ends … EMC was very thorough about those lines being well defined."

The OU has a "very primitive" firmware and break-fix agreement with EMC, according to Adrian Wells, host system software manager at the university. Its virtualization vendor, FalconStor Systems Inc., is now responsible for its entire storage environment. "If anything goes wrong, we call them," Wells said.

IBM swap shop

The city of Richmond, Va., meanwhile, was struggling with storage utilization rates hovering at a dismal 40%.

Their main data center includes more than 120 different servers, many with DAS from either IBM or EMC. The city also has about 8 TB split between three EMC SANs -- a CX400 and two CX300s -- and a Shark for IBM mainframe data.

"We had drastically under-used systems and then over-used hot spots," said Lyle Gleason, systems architect for the city of Richmond.

Using IBM SVC software, the organization was able to virtualize about 85% of its storage investment, including EMC Clariion and IBM storage arrays.

"Our objective is to be vendor independent," said Steve Forstner, IT manager for the city of Richmond. Now he believes the city is in a position to get the best price per terabyte for its storage. It was also able to bring in the virtualization offering, which included two new IBM midrange arrays for the same price as it was paying on the maintenance of a five-year-old Shark.

But the real kicker to the implementation was the support agreement. "IBM agreed to support any issues -- they said they would replace or swap out any storage system that failed, including our EMC stuff," Forstner said.

Analysts note that it'll be interesting to see how comfortable users are implementing EMC's new virtualization product, Invista, in multi-vendor environments. "It's only been on the market a month or so, but EMC plans to use it to virtualize other vendors' systems and ultimately to replace them," said Randy Kerns, an independent storage consultant.

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