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User performs data storage U-turn

U-Store-It, a national self-storage company, decentralized its data centers, migrated data from SAN to DAS and de-clustered Exchange to simplify storage management.

One of the nation's largest self-storage companies has taken an unorthodox approach to managing its data centers since last year. In an effort to get business decision-makers at the company closer to its retail outlets in the field, the company decentralized its data centers and its data, returning some of its storage area network (SAN) data to direct-attached storage (DAS), outsourced its backup and used WAFS from Riverbed to tie it all together.

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The company moved from a centralized data center in Cleveland, in which it managed 2 terabytes (TB) of data on an HP MSA 1000 SAN, including a clustered Exchange server, to five main offices divided by region. The company now has dispersed headquarters in Cleveland and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is the the primary data site, and Cleveland is the disaster recovery site. Roughly 1 TB of its SAN data has been returned to DAS on HP ProLiant servers, and the Exchange server has also been returned to DAS, in contrast to industry trends over the last few years.

"With the Exchange server, it was all about simplifying management," said CIO Ajai Nair, who was brought on eight months ago to oversee the project. "I found that managing the cluster introduced more variables into diagnosing a problem if the system went down, and that wasn't outweighed by the benefits." The Exchange environment had been on a high availability pair of HP ProLiants attached to the MSA, and the data was migrated to a newer, single ProLiant with internal disk. The company's SQL server was also migrated back to its own DAS.

The MSA, however, remains in place -- serving files. The company decided to consolidate five file servers into one more powerful Windows host, and the MSA was the only device with enough storage space to accommodate all the data.

"It was a conscious decision," Nair said of moving the database off the SAN. The SQL server is running a financial application, Great Plains, which is tied in to the company's Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance. The company plans to upgrade from version 8 to version 10 of Great Plains soon, and SOX dictates extensive testing when upgrading such applications. Nair said the easiest way to perform this testing is to build an entirely new environment, which is cheaper and simpler to do with DAS.

To get all this accomplished, the company also used an unorthodox method of data migration. During an earlier phase of the restructuring process, U-Store-It had outsourced its backup to IPR International LLC's DataGuardian software-as-a-service (SaaS). Previously, U-Store-It had been doing traditional daily incremental and weekly full tape backups. "If we were a normal organization of the same size rather than a 24x7 business, tape backups might still have worked," Nair said. "But, the backup window left us some exposure, and if it failed, we'd have to send someone in the middle of the night on a weekend to fix it." In the course of its data migration project, it enlisted IPR's help to transfer the data. "It's got a Web-based interface, so we could just restore a file or data set to wherever we pointed [the service] to."

With its file servers consolidated and its Exchange server removed from networked storage, all while serving newly distributed offices, WAN latency between offices was sure to be an issue. Putting servers in each office was also not an option for Nair.

"I've been in that situation [of servers and backup at distributed offices] before," he said. "Management is horrible, backup doesn't get done, patches are inconsistent… I wasn't going back to that."

Instead, Nair put in several wide area file services (WAFS) appliances from Riverbed, which he had also previously used with another employer. The Pennsylvania office for U-Store-It is running a Riverbed Steelhead 2020, the Cleveland office has a Steelhead 1010 on standby for disaster recovery purposes, and the rest of the company's smaller offices are running the Steelhead 100 appliances.

U-Store-It, a Cisco networking shop, also considered the router giant's Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) product, but Nair said its GUI was less intuitive than Riverbed's for his taste, and he preferred the fact that Riverbed sits inline between the router and the network switch, while Cisco's WAAS remains outside that connection, passing back traffic it can't optimize. "My preference is to have data pass once through the network," he said. (Cisco's Wide Area Application Engine (WAE) can be configured to sit between the router and switch, but requires a WAE Inline Network Adapter according to Cisco's documentation. WAAS can also be integrated with the router itself, tagging certain traffic to bypass the WAAS module.)

So far, he said, the Riverbed product has worked well, especially when it comes to Exchange, since the Steelhead appliances perform Exchange spoofing -- caching emails on the local box for download when users log on to the system again. "It's a really nice feature that we hadn't even thought about," Nair said.

One feature the company has thought about for Riverbed to add, however, is the ability to act as a dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) server, which assigns IP addresses to hosts on the fly, something WAAS does. "It's not a core skill for Riverbed," Nair admitted. "But, since we don't have servers in the field, my switches are providing DHCP, and I'd rather have them just being switches."

Nair said he's aware that U-Store-It's approach has been off the beaten path. But, he said, it was the only choice given the goals of the business. He said he will probably consider moving back to SAN for his SQL database at some point, but otherwise is happy with how the process turned out. "It was great for us to do this, if only for the purge process that happens whenever you move data, when you ask yourself, 'do I really need this?'"

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