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Thin provisioning storage products for SMBs

Thin provisioning can provide many benefits for data storage infrastructures in SMBs. In this tip, Ann Silverthorn explores what SMBs should look for in thin provisioning storage products.

Two years ago, business growth strained all facets of the New York City-based Visual Trading Systems' IT infrastructure. The SMB, which provides IT services to companies involved in foreign exchange, experienced increased storage demands but couldn't automatically use excess capacity that resided in its four data centers and 10 offices around the world. Storage resources were pre-allocated and required manual provisioning to provide additional storage to applications that were running low.

John Duffy, the company's enterprise architect, selected 3PAR's InServ Storage Server with thin provisioning in June of 2007 to aggregate unused capacity into a virtual pool that could be shared across the organization. As a result, storage utilization rates now approach 80% -- much better than Visual Trading Systems' historical average of 25% for Windows storage and 50% for Unix storage.

Traditionally, if an application is forecasted to consume a terabyte of storage space over a five-year period, the entire terabyte is purchased and deployed in the first year. The extra drives use up electricity and occupy dataroom real estate, while generating heat, which requires cooling. With thin provisioning, excess storage capacity across the organization is automatically provisioned to applications that experience a storage deficit.

Most thin provisioning occurs within storage area networks (SANs) that employ storage virtualization. The thin provisioning software separates the storage from the servers, allowing administrators to allocate capacity to applications as they normally would. But the capacity is only consumed when the application actually writes data, so users have enough storage to do their jobs without interruption, and administrators can better manage and forecast storage capacity requirements.

Regarding forecasting, Duffy said that thin provisioning technology shouldn't be used alone to predict storage needs. "The bulk of forecasting is more of an art than a science. You have to blend current business growth requirements, new business growth requirements and efficient administration to do a proper job of forecasting," he said.

Another SMB, RealTime Services Group Inc., which provides service and support to small staffing firms, has been using thin provisioning for two years. Jeff Sabotin, director of IT, selected DataCore Software Corp.'s SANmelody software for his 12 servers at an initial cost of $25,000. Prior to the installation, some of RealTime's servers had plenty of storage available and some sorely needed more.

"Expanding and adding partitions took a lot of time, so thin provisioning storage was a big deal for us," Sabotin said. "We're a small shop, and we don't have a ton of money."

What to look for in a thin provisioning product

SMBs researching thin provisioning will have to consider their budgets. Thin provisioning solutions vary greatly in price and without enterprise economies of scale, the costs will consume a greater proportion of SMBs' budgets than that of their larger counterparts.

In addition, SMBs will discover both hardware-based and software-alone thin provisioning solutions. Appliance or array-based products tout the ability to manage thin provisioning's I/Os without a significantly slowing down on the system. Software-based products are attractive to SMBs that want to utilize existing resources and don't want to get trapped in a proprietary solution.

Info-Tech Research Group Analyst John Sloan said a recent trend in thin provisioning is its marketing as a "green" technology that reduces the data center's carbon footprint. But even organizations that value efficiency over environmentalism might still be attracted to thin provisioning.

"The bottom line is that decreasing power consumption and improving utilization will save money, even in a small implementation," said Sloan. "If you waste less, you'll save more. Efficiency is never a bad thing."

Noemi Greyzdorf, IDC research manager, expects thin provisioning to get easier to implement and more flexible in its design. But she warns that thin provisioning is not for everyone.

"Across all enterprises, large and small, thin provisioning is desirable when your goal is to realize higher utilization rates on your storage resources," said Greyzdorf. "If you're looking to aggregate from direct-attached storage (DAS) to a SAN, thin provisioning is your friend. Thin provisioning doesn't apply when you have certain performance requirements that trump capacity provisioning."

A sampling of thin provisioning products

The following is a sampling of thin provisioning products for SMBs.

3PAR InServ Storage Server
Thin provisioning is bundled in 3PAR's InServ Storage Server and is billed as "green" technology. It's designed to cut capacity and related costs while reducing storage and system administration. Organizations provision virtual capacity once and purchase pooled physical capacity only as applications require it for written data. The InServ Storage Server pricing is based on the amount of written capacity. A 3PAR E200 InServ Storage Server, with the InForm operating system and thin provisioning, costs $70,000.

DataCore SANmelody
SANmelody Starter SAN software converts standard Intel/AMD servers, blades or virtual machines into storage servers that virtualize disks and serve them over existing networks to application servers. The software includes thin provisioning, data-migration technology, storage-performance caching, snapshots, remote site disaster recovery replication and data protection. SANmelody Starter SAN packages cost under $2,000 per server.

EMC Corp. Virtual Provisioning
Virtual thin provisioning runs on Symmetrix, Celerra and Clariion platforms. It assigns capacity to a maximum requirement while physically provisioning a smaller amount to meet initial needs. It reports physical usage, logical size and available pooled capacity so administrators can set alerts to avoid running out of physical capacity. SMBs typically use Celerra platforms, which start at $20,015 for an NX4 single-blade system with 4 TB of SATA storage.

FalconStor Software Network Storage Server (NSS)
FalconStor NSS appliances help automate storage resource allocation and capacity management while virtualization provides centralized management for heterogeneous storage environments. In addition to thin provisioning, FalconStor NSS offers data mirroring, snapshots, WAN-optimized IP replication and synchronous mirroring. NSS can also be purchased as software appliance kits to install on servers. The starting price is $2,000 for the FalconStor NSS Virtual Appliance.

Fujitsu Eternus
Eternus storage systems range from entry-level modular to high-end monolithic systems. Fujitsu claims that the SMB version offers the same functionality as its high-end storage products. The storage virtualization allocates necessary volumes dynamically according to the operational situation. Thin provisioning will be a standard offering in mid-2009 for the Eternus8000 and Eternus4000. Eternus2000 has an entry price of $10,500 and Eternus4000 has an entry price of $40,000.

Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) Dynamic Provisioning
Hitachi Dynamic Provisioning (HDP) software is thin provisioning software that provides virtual storage capacity to simplify the administration of new storage, eliminate application service interruptions and reduce costs. HDP reduces both capital and operating expenses by pushing out storage acquisition and improving operational efficiencies. Hewlett Packard (HP) Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. use the HDS dynamic provisioning in their products.

HP StorageWorks EVA Dynamic Capacity Management
The StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array (EVA) thin provisioning feature automatically "right-sizes" the supported file system and virtual-disk storage volume to the needs of an application. It also allows space reclaiming (i.e., LUN shrink) with Windows 2008 and with other operating systems in the future. Scalable to the SMB in function and pricing, the list price for 1 TB of storage on the EVA4400 disk array is $1,350.

LeftHand Networks Inc. SAN/iQ
SAN/iQ software allows customers to create pools of storage by consolidating individual storage nodes on the network into a storage cluster. All available physical capacity is aggregated and available to the volumes created on a SAN. Administrators can expand volumes and add storage nodes online without taking the volumes offline or causing application downtime. A LeftHand 1 TB NSM 160 SAN platform with SAN/iQ software costs around $13,000. LeftHand Networks is an HP company.

Nexenta Systems Inc. NexentaStor
NexentaStor is a NAS/iSCSI solution based on the ZFS file system, which was developed by Sun. Along with thin provisioning, the appliance offers storage virtualization, unlimited snapshots, common Internet file system (CIFS), network file system (NFS), iSCSI, storage tiering, block-level mirroring, write once, read many (WORM), high availability and management of VMware ESX environments. NexentaStor costs $1,100 at the SMB level.

STORServer SAN Appliances
STORServer's SAN appliances are managed with a single interface that speeds up both common and complex storage tasks. It provisions unlimited volumes from a single pool and allocates volumes of any size while consuming only physical capacity when data is written by the application. The appliances range in cost from $25,000 to $75,000.

About this author: Ann Silverthorn has been writing articles and white papers about the management, storage, and protection of data for nearly a decade. She can be contacted at ann@annsilverthorn.com.

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