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Pension fund retires RAID storage system

Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund moves to SAN when RAID system proves inefficient.

Pension fund retires RAID storage system
Company saves time and money with SAN

By M.C. Kincora

Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund moves to SAN when RAID system proves inefficient.

As the saying goes, time is money. The RAID storage system at Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund was wasting both. Every significant capacity upgrade of the RAID system required at least a week of downtime. Plus, annual upgrade costs ran to a whopping $100,000 a year.

With storage needs expected to increase five-fold between 2000 and 2002, Alexandria, Va.-based Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund could no longer tolerate costly and time-consuming RAID upgrades. Bill Manning, the fund's director for technical services, teamed with Vienna, Va.-based integrator Selenetix Corp. to find a secure, flexible, easily scalable solution for managing the organization's mission-critical pension data.

Data volumes at the fund have skyrocketed over the past few years. In 1999 alone, the company had to quadruple storage capacity in order to properly protect and manage employment data, financial records, eligibility data and pension distribution for over 300 local unions and 200,000 participants throughout the country. The 33-year-old organization's storage system also holds the accounting information for the pension fund's $4.5 billion in assets.

The rapid growth of storage volume forced Manning to add and reconfigure the server-attached RAID arrays every six months. The process was slow, laborious and costly. "You have to rebuild to reconfigure," says Manning. "If you want to increase volume size in a RAID system, you have to put another cabinet in and buy identical disks."

Using identical disks from one generation to another can be almost impossible because disk technology constantly changes. "For example, we were once using 9G byte drives in our RAID array," Manning explains. "When it came time to upgrade, 9G byte SCSI-2 disks no longer existed, which meant all the disks had to be replaced." All the data had to be moved off the old system; the new controller, cabinets and drives had to be repopulated; and then all the data moved back to the new system. "That process could take a week, at best, at a cost of $100,000," Manning says.

Manning examined alternatives to RAID for months. "I knew that a storage area network (SAN) would be wonderful, if it worked," says Manning. His research revealed that some companies had troublesome SAN implementations due to the nascent technology's complexity and interoperability problems. So, Manning asked the fund's long-time integration partner, Selenetix Corp., to seek out a SAN solution that met the organization's scalability needs but didn't lock the fund into one hardware vendor's products.

During the search, the organization evaluated products from IBM Corp., DataCore Software Corp., and Veritas Corp., among others. IBM offered a network attached storage solution, but the system did not meet all of Manning's requirements. As for the Veritas solution, "it was not well enough developed at that time," says Manning. DataCore's SANsymphony, however, offered an economical, non-proprietary data storage management solution, he says.

Headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., DataCore develops storage virtualization and networking software. Its SANsymphony storage infrastructure software puts separate chunks of disparate storage into networked storage pools. SANsymphony employs a drag-and-drop interface to enable systems administrators to allocate storage capacity that resides in this centralized pool to various servers within the system on an as-needed basis.

In evaluating the SANsymphony SAN solution, Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund worked with Selenetix to conduct stress tests, disable components on the fly, monitor and redirect I/O and add and move storage volumes. The evaluation brought a pleasant surprise. "It worked," says Manning. "It worked well."

During implementation, however, there was one small glitch. "We installed it over the weekend, and on Sunday everything worked well," says Manning. "On the following Monday morning, as people started to log in and the system went under weight, it crashed."

DataCore's reps were Johnny-on-the-spot to help the organization find the problem: an incompatibility between a server chip set and application software. The DataCore technicians walked Manning through the correction. "We didn't get back up until Wednesday, but everything has worked perfectly since then," he says.

One of the biggest benefits of the SAN for Plumbers and Pipefitter's National Pension fund has been the ability to plan for hardware and storage costs from year to year. Now that the company's data storage resides in a virtualized pool, Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund can easily expand and manage storage resources, according to Manning. That's a world of difference from the days of using RAID. "With RAID we could never determine when we'd have to replace the RAID array," says Manning. "Now, we can actually schedule changes and get them done quickly."

For more information on DataCore Software Corp., visit their Web site.

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