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At conference, storage pros offer management tips

Users at SNW are looking to the top guys in their industry for ways to best implement and manage storage infrastructures.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Users at Storage Networking World this week are not only looking for the latest products and checking out interoperability labs. They are also here to glean good business practices from their colleagues.

Brian Cobb, vice president of systems engineering for Washington D.C.-based Fannie Mae, says that the key to reaching your storage goals is to start by knowing your business -- and then implementing systems based on those requirements.

"We are in the American dream business," said Cobb, whose company is one of the largest suppliers of home loans in the United States. "[When implementing a storage area network] you need to start small, with something non-mission critical, and prove your case to the business side."

Cobb notes that bolstering your case to the financial side takes a level approach of choosing technologies that are mature. He says he does not purchase technologies just because they exist. Nor does he just take the vendor's word for it that the product works. Extensive testing is a routine for Fannie Mae. He has set up a testing environment that mirrors exactly what the live environment does to ensure that there will be no surprises if something goes awry on the company's Web site, which is powered by roughly 1,400 servers and is held to a standard of 24/7 uptime.

"You need to pull a switch or a Fibre Channel cable out or power down a server, then document everything that goes wrong," Cobb said.

Cobb says the documentation is important in the event of a real emergency.

Curtis Robb, senior vice president and CIO of Delta Air Lines and president and CEO of Delta Technology Inc., was facing an emergency of his own in the late 90's. Robb's Delta Technology team had made an error in outsourcing critical applications and was witnessing a sinking system.

Each year, Delta comes up with a plan to put 120 million people in the skies. With more than 5,300 daily flights and a plane taking off in the United States at a rate of one every 40 seconds, there is no room for downtime or performance gaps. But that plan is a living document that can change dramatically with one thunderstorm or delayed flight.

So Robb took control of the ship and brought all of the application development in-house, where engineers understood the needs of a deeply complex airline operation that had specific business needs and were able to tackle the unpredictable air travel environment.

In 2000, Delta began a major overhaul of much of its computer infrastructure at airports around the country. Delta's goal was a three-tiered system that consists of finding a solution that fit the problem, taking it to market and minimizing the total cost of ownership (TCO).

Like Cobb, Robb understood the value of understanding the business and its needs before creating a storage area network and a series of applications that fit the network.

"We built special views that complemented business concepts," Robb said. "We lowered the basket for all players by building a business application that shows all views. And we create[d] new applications based on business needs."

The "views" Robb refers to is a series of data points ranging from passenger lists to data about connecting flights to data about delayed flights. This type of information used to only be available on a one-question and one-answer basis. But by seeing all of the information on one screen, customer care representatives can more efficiently answer multiple questions for curious customers.

Ultimately, it's usually not just the IT person that is driving a storage purchase. Other users, like DirectTV Inc.'s vice president of IT operations and production services, Rick Peterson, say that choosing a product family or direction is a multidepartment decision.

"We have three departments involved, operations, business and the technology people," said Peterson.


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