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Community association group revamps data storage management

Associa needed a data storage management overhaul to keep up with years of expansion and a move to a virtual server environment; switches to Pillar Data SAN.

Community association management company Associa required a significant data storage management overhaul to keep up with years of expansion and a move to a virtual server environment. Associa switched to Pillar Data storage, relying on its thin provisioning and quality of service to manage and monitor storage for more than 250 virtual servers and thousands of Exchange users.

Jon Krueger, Associa's director of IT infrastructure, said he switched from EMC Clariion SANs to Pillar's Axiom 600 Fibre Channel (FC) system last year to keep up with up to 30% storage growth per year.

Dallas-based Associa supports home owner associations that want to outsource services such as maintenance and financial management. Krueger said Associa has acquired more than 60 member companies over the last 15 years, putting it in a constant expansion mode.

Over the past two years Associa went from 20 physical servers in its Dallas data center to more than 250 virtual servers, mostly using VMware. It also went from fewer than 1,000 email users to 3,100 on Exchange.

Associa initially bought four Axiom Fibre Channel and two SATA bricks (enclosures), and has twice upgraded with four FC and two SATA bricks each time for 12 FC and six SATA bricks and 103 TB. Krueger said he's looking at adding a solid-state drive (SSD) brick by midyear, "primarily for write cache related to VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] as well as our line-of-business applications for accounting."

Like many companies, Associa's data storage environment changed drastically in the wake of server virtualization. Krueger said the old storage model didn't work anymore.

"Our biggest storage challenge was that traditional storage allocation models were rigid," he said. "Once you had virtualization, it was a lot easier to oversubscribe storage. Without good monitoring and planning tools, it's easy to get yourself into oversubscribing or overspending for storage. You have one application stealing I/O from another application. Unless you carefully manage that, you can get into trouble – especially when we have several teams bringing systems into the data center. Some weeks we add 20 [virtual] servers."

Krueger said he felt constrained by his EMC SAN before switching to Pillar. When he started looking to expand his storage last year, his main issue was bringing thousands of new users onto his Exchange server.

"We don't have mailbox limits. We were working with EMC, Dell and Microsoft to design a storage environment for growth with guestimate numbers," he said. "EMC came back with a two-array proposal just for Exchange."

The first thing he did after switching to Pillar was to migrate 1,000 Exchange users from local email to the SAN. Associa also has Microsoft SQL Server and SharePoint, its ERP, and all Web-facing applications on the Axiom SAN, and also uses it for backup and archiving. Pillar's quality-of-service feature works with CommVault Simpana to prevent bottlenecks during backup by reducing I/O for other applications during backups.

Krueger said he liked the way Pillar lets him quickly add capacity without adding licenses or doing a forklift replacement. Axiom consists of slammers to add performance and bricks to add capacity. "We'd been so dynamic and hadn't been able to plan our capacity growth," he said. "If a surprise came up -- I'd have to add a lot of users from an acquisition or a new application rolls down the pike -- Pillar lets me maintain performance with their quality of service. As we needed IOPS or storage, we could add disk. Or if there was a bottleneck on the SAN we could add a slammer."

Krueger said thin provisioning comes in handy with VMware's virtual machine file system (VMFS) that lets multiple servers read and write to a file system simultaneously. "We had virtual disk on LUNs that had I/O profiles configured for optional data access, but we didn't have enough storage," he said. "We added additional storage two months later ,but because of thin provisioning we didn't have to configure anything else new."

He uses monitoring tools that are part of Pillar's professional services to check for bottlenecks. He's also considering adding SolarWinds Tek-Tools resource management software and Veeam software to help manage the virtual layer.

Krueger said Associa has approximately 250 virtual desktops and plans to add 500 more. All the Citrix VDI images are stored on the SAN.

"It allows us to boot stateless VMs," Krueger said. "We don't require individual storage for each VM [virtual machine] outside of the write cache. We're trying to remove as much infrastructure out of our field offices into the data center as possible."

While he said he has his storage under control, management still requires vigilance.

"We still struggle with understanding when we need to buy more of," he said. "Departments see the ease in which new servers can be provisioned, but if you don't monitor carefully you can get yourself into a corner waiting for additional capacity to come in."


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