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Sprint spin-off struggles with mainframe tape migration

Telecom firm Embarq touched a nerve with mainframe users at StorageTek Forum -- huge tape migrations are forcing them to reconsider their historic loyalty to tape.

LAS VEGAS -- At a session during StorageTek's annual Forum conference Thursday morning, users were prompted into an enthusiastic discussion on mainframe tape, and the trials and tribulations of migrating tape data when companies merge or split. The discussion followed a presentation by Robert Hughes, media and capacity manager with Embarq Holdings Co. LLC, a telecom and internet service provider in Las Vegas, which has recently been spun off from telecom giant Sprint Nextel.

"We are a brand new 107-year-old company," Hughes told the audience. Since the company announced the split in May of this year, Hughes said, decentralizing decades of tape archives for its IBM z-Series systems has been a struggle.

Following the split, the companies were faced with totally reconfiguring two data centers in Kansas City, Kansas, and Dallas. Sprint, Hughes said, kept the Dallas data center, and Embarq has moved its operations entirely to Kansas City. By the time the decentralization is complete in July of next year, some 100,000 tapes will have passed between the two data centers as the two companies sort out which data belongs where. Already, Hughes said, he has received shipments of approximately 43,000 tapes from Dallas, most of them old 3490 tapes that hold as little as 1 MB apiece.

Hughes said his company had made the decision to "stack" the data sets from the 3490 tapes into newer 9840 formats using StorageTek's Virtual Storage Manager (VSM). Eventually, Hughes said, he wants to mix all of his open systems and mainframe tape archives into the SL8500 tape silo.

All this tape consolidation has been forced, Hughes said, in his presentation, by an increase from hundreds to thousands of servers in the newly separated data center, as business applications that had been consolidated over 20 years have had to be picked apart (this increase, he said, was even with consolidation using VMware).

"Basically, they've been tying a knot for 25 years, and now we have to figure out how to untie it," Hughes said. Part of the process has been repeated directions from his management to collapse and consolidate the old tape archives -- consolidating his storage on the fly so that servers can grow.

The issues experienced by Hughes are far more common than you might think, according to Bruce Wexler, business development manager for Sun Microsystems Inc., a veteran of StorageTek who said in the session that he had attended a Large Tape User Group (L-TUG) meeting earlier in the week and had heard similar stories from other users there. At the end of Hughes' presentation several users from large financial and insurance companies, also big mainframe shops, came forward to tell him they felt his pain.

"I essentially converted 200,000 tapes from 3490 to 9840 single-handedly," said one user, who asked not to be named due to company policies prohibiting him from being named in the press. Another user recommended a software product called Fatscopy from Innovation Data Processing, which is designed specifically to automate the process of tape migration from 3480 and 3490 tapes to IBM 3590/3592 and (validation test suite) VTS, as well as Sun StorageTek 9840 and 9940 formats and VSM.

Sun's Wexler said the situation Hughes is experiencing -- having to fly by the seat of his pants, contending with third-party vaulting contractors, confusion over separation of duties and data between the two companies -- is also common, but avoidable.

"Many mainframe users are caught between doing a migration themselves by hand from tape to tape, which is onerous in terms of time, or spending the money for either a VSM or professional services to help them migrate data in these situations," Wexler said. "People, especially in the mainframe space, are almost frightened to move over."

But several more users from a large insurance company, who asked not to be named, said they had tried for seven years to manage a similar conversion process themselves when they were trying to assimilate a newly acquired subsidiary. In the end, they told Hughes following his talk, that they ended up spending more money than they saved by not hiring consultants and investing in VSM.

Hughes said he'll never move completely off tape, because it still costs less than keeping huge disk archives spinning. He said he believed sticking with mainframes is the way to go, though tape technology on the open systems side, like the [Sun] T10000, is often cheaper and more advanced. "For the right applications, like DB2 databases and huge number-crunching processes, mainframe processing power can actually still be cheaper than open systems," he said.

Eventually, however, Hughes said he predicts a merger of mainframe and open systems. "Servers now are as big as my mainframe 15 years ago," he said, and mainframe skill sets are declining in new generations of college graduates. "I don't really think one side will win -- every time one side improves something, the other eventually catches up."

Meanwhile, for the time being, "Virtualizing the frequently accessed data [using VSM] and putting it on disk is probably the way I'm going to go," Hughes said. "If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't have waited, he added."

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