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Engineering firm maps out storage strategy with Gridstore Inc.

To keep up with proliferation of 3-D drawing files, The RMH Group added 12 TB of grid storage from Gridstore for archiving to extend life of its aging SAN.

With its unstructured data on the rise, The RMH Group Inc. engineering firm this year installed 12 TB of usable storage from Gridstore Inc. to archive and protect file data in its Microsoft Hyper-V environment.

RMH bought four 4 TB SATA Gridstore Capacity Storage Nodes for $3,000 each for a total of 16 TB of raw storage. The Gridstore nodes helped slash backup windows while extending the life of an HP LeftHand SAN (now called HP StoreVirtual) used for primary production, IT Manager Troy Kuskie said. Gridstore storage is built specifically for Windows servers.

The Denver-based RMH Group provides mechanical and electrical engineering services for central utilities, data centers, educational and health care facilities, laboratories and military installations.

The company typically worked off a three- to five-year cycle of replacing SAN hard drives to accommodate growth and migration to new storage. The advent of larger files used by engineering applications has accelerated that growth.

"It's not that our capacity would get 100% full, but we like to give ourselves 10% to 12% room to have enough time to get everything migrated," said Kuskie, adding that his company's data "doubled, if not tripled" since the last SAN disk upgrade.

Upgrading storage sans a SAN

Gridstore Capacity Storage Nodes are designed for bulk storage and applications with low I/O demand. The nodes start at 4 TB per 1U appliance and can scale up to a 48 TB 2U system. Up to 250 Gridstore hardware nodes can be combined to create a single storage grid, starting with a three-node minimum.

RMH runs two instances of the Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisor, each responsible for 16 virtual machines. RMH uses Hyper-V as a test bed for development projects. Altaro Hyper-V Backup software, array-based HP snaphots and Microsoft Windows snapshots point to the Gridstore storage grid.

Altaro BackupFS for file servers scans the HP production network once a quarter and migrates older data (up to three years) to the grid. "Moving data off the HP network buys me some more time. In case the SAN starts to fail, we still have the majority of our active data running on the Gridstore grid," Kuskie said.

The advent of 3-D computer-aided design (3-D CAD) software helped fuel the need for low-cost scalable storage. RMH engineers use the 3-D files to collaborate and share data objects, which include field photos, images and schematics.

"Engineering files now are three times the size they used to be. The 3-D stuff is getting to be the norm in our industry and we definitely need to stay ahead of the curve," Kuskie said, who estimates RMH storage grows by 12 TB to 14 TB a year.

The nodes are managed with server-side Virtual Controller Technology (vController) installed on physical Windows or Microsoft Hyper-V hosts, enabling each box to be tuned to dynamically handle I/O requests. The vController manages storage per virtual machine: each LUN is spread across the nodes sequentially in a storage pool, with writes occurring in parallel.

Gridstore evaluation focused on capacity, installation

Kuskie said the ability to upgrade storage with hot-swappable disks without disruption, and to scale with additional plug-and-play Gridstore nodes helped clinch the decision.

"When you plug Gridstore into the network, the device automatically discovers itself on the grid and gives you the choice either to put new storage on the existing grid or to create a new grid. I have 4 TB of raw space that I can carve up among any volumes on the grid. I don't have to port data back and forth, copy data, verify whether the backup worked or back up to tape if it didn't work. I can keep slapping these Gridstore boxes in my network and it's all software-based," Kuskie said.

Kuskie said it is likely that RMH eventually will replace its primary SAN with a grid of high-performance Gridstore Hybrid Storage Nodes to serve Hyper-V deployment, SQL Server databases and production network shares. The Hybrid Storage Nodes use read and write-back cache built on PCIe flash, and two 10-Gigabit Ethernet connections to accelerate underlying I/O. 

Initially, RMH planned to spend $50,000 to $100,000 to purchase a new SAN. The company investigated SAN technology from Nexsan (now part of Imation) and HP's 3PAR StoreServ platform, but instead came away convinced it needed an alternative to traditional networked storage.

"We had built out the LeftHand SAN as far as it would go and the technology wasn't getting any easier to use. In the past 10 years, I could migrate stuff on a weekend, but now I've got [12 TB] to 14 TB of data that won't copy itself overnight," Kuskie said.

Kuskie's IT team eventually learned about Gridstore's grid-based system. RMH ran a trial evaluation with Gridstore Capacity Storage Nodes last year.

"I oversee a small IT operation and can't afford to make bad decisions. When we were evaluating their stuff, Gridstore gave us the nodes and said 'Here, plug it in and have fun. If it doesn't work for you, we'll take it back.' That made it easier to try something new," Kuskie said.

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