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Storage admins 'unleashed' in age of cloud

Storage professionals should feel 'unleashed' and empowered in the age of cloud to avoid the tedious admin work and hit the reset button by modernizing data center storage.

LAS VEGAS -- Reports of the storage admin's death have been greatly exaggerated.

That's the opinion of Ford Motor Company's Rodger Manning, the IT storage engineering technical leader, who outlined the automaker's storage transformation strategy during a NetApp Insight session.

Manning described how Ford changed its storage culture and technology while building two new data centers 18 months ago. His strategy can serve as a blueprint for how a storage admin can take a cloud-like approach to managing and consuming data center storage.

The role of the storage admin has clearly changed in this age of cloud storage and convergence. But that makes them free rather than obsolete in Manning's view.

"There's been talk about the death of the storage admin. We don't see it that way," Manning said. "We see it more as an unleashing of the storage admin. By taking away the daily task of provisioning storage, we're able to put them on different projects and help them grow in different ways."

As the storage service owner at Ford, Manning is responsible for delivery and strategy for file, block and object storage, and data protection services. He manages them all as services rather than individual products or protocols.

He said Ford's current storage strategy came about after the company "had an epiphany. SAN and NAS are protocols, and storage is storage. So, we went to a unified model. We rebranded, and we came up with storage as a service, or STaaS."

Ford has adopted public cloud concepts and terminology for its data center storage. Instead of SAN and NAS, it refers to its storage types as block storage, file storage and unified storage. The concepts of disaster recovery and high availability (HA) have been replaced by availability zones -- two in each data center -- to protect data.

There's been talk about the death of the storage admin. We don't see it that way. We see it more as an unleashing of the storage admin.
Rodger ManningIT storage engineering technical leader, Ford Motor Company

"We're developing service teams that will have full accountability for that service," he said. "You no longer have a SAN team, a NAS team, a backup team. It's just one service team that focuses on delivering value for that service."

Each storage admin on the team is empowered to address issues when discovered.

"Although we have separation of duty, there's that community approach where anyone can fix anything they find that's broken," he said.

There have also been culture changes, such as the addition of developers. Ford pairs developers with storage admins in two-person teams.

"I would have never thought I'd have developers on my storage team two years ago," Manning said. "We have people that sit side by side. They know how to codify APIs. They don't know anything about storage, but we have two-person teams that work together to deliver content.

"Cultural change drives the transformation. Technology helps with the transformation, but first and foremost it's a cultural change," he said.

Ford's storage transformation includes a new way to buy, Manning said. The automaker increasingly looks for subscription and utility pricing models "to reduce costs and be more like a service provider." Like a cloud provider, Ford offers storage services and charges its internal teams for consumption. Ford's storage users don't know what specific product they're using, or even what vendor it comes from.

"We've removed all brand names of our vendors; we just describe the service," Manning said. "You won't see NetApp, IBM, Dell EMC or Pure Storage or any of the other vendors on our catalog. We just go back to the attributes of what we're selling and how we're managing it."

Ford does use the latest technologies. Manning said it will upgrade to NetApp Ontap 9.7 operating system that launched this week as soon as possible, and it uses NetApp's all-flash storage arrays. But Ford's internal storage consumers don't know that.

"Customers don't need to know how a watch works; they just want to know the time," he said.

Ford also changed the way it looks at storage utilization. Instead of measuring the percentage of storage utilized, it uses analytics to determine how much time it has before it needs to buy more.

"Looking at utilization percentage and the number of terabytes remaining used to work," he said, "when you have 100 petabytes at 75% efficiency, that's great, but you have a lot of real estate and a lot of investment not being used. We're simplifying how we buy storage. If I have three months of capacity, it doesn't matter how much utilization and how many terabytes I have. I know when to pull the trigger and get more hardware."

Building new data centers gave Ford a chance to "press the reset button" on how it buys, manages and consumes storage, he said. The automaker got rid of silos defined by protocols and set up catalogs for storage services. Its internal storage consumers select from Value, Performance and Extreme storage tiers based on performance metrics such as megabytes per second and quality-of-service needs.

File and block storage are priced the same, with a premium for features such as Fibre Channel ports. "Think of it as a cable bill -- you pay your cable bill, and then you buy your TV packages," Manning said.

For data protection, Ford switched from a model of DR and HA to using Availability Zones -- a concept borrowed from public cloud providers.

"We had a lot of debate over, 'What is HA and what is DR?'" Manning said. "If I have an active-passive relationship, that's DR. If I have synchronous replication, then that's HA. But some of our new cloud platforms don't fit into that terminology. So, we described our resilience as local and geo. Our customers can choose which Availability Zones they want to deploy."

Manning said the early results of his storage makeover have been promising. Ford reduced its footprint from 170 racks of storage hardware to around 20. At the same time, its budget remained "relatively flat," even after investing in two new data centers and increasing capacity. By offering self-service for selected IT services, Manning said Ford reduced requests and help desk tickets by more than 10,000 within nine months.

"You are a cloud operator, you're going to compete with cloud providers, and you're going to be the extension of the overall cloud ecosystem," he said of today's enterprise storage admin.

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