AQR Capital Management

Investment management firm debunks myth that SMBs have low-end storage needs

May 23, 2006

4 Min Read
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Not all SMBs are mom and pop shops with simple storage needs and lack of technical expertise.

With 100 employees, Greenwich, Conn.-based AQR Capital Management falls into the category of an SMB, but the investment management firm has no use for "simple SANs" or de-featured products designed for department use. AQR oversees around $20 billion in customers' assets, making for a lot of mission-critical data.

"We're small in numbers, but our mission-critical systems are big in data," says Jerry Levine, AQR's VP of IT. "It's very different than working for a manufacturing firm of 100 people."

After the power blackout that took down much of the northeast in 2003, AQR set out to build a disaster recovery site. At the time, the company consisted of around 35 people with 20 servers but no SAN. Levine decided AQR could do DR a lot better with a SAN than with data scattered on servers.

AQR settled on EMC Clariion after checking out midrange systems from EMC, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM - but not EMC's entry-level AX or even its lowest end CX system. Instead, AQR installed three CX700s -- the highest end of EMC's midrange family. The firm uses three Cisco MDS9216i switches to connect them. (See Cisco Readies Multiprotocol Switch.)Levine says he liked that EMC provided the entire package of mirroring, document management with Documentum, and server virtualization with VMware. He also was impressed by its long history with storage systems.

"I remember EMC being around and doing disk 20 years ago, and they're ahead in storage systems," Levine says.

He couldn't claim much knowledge about Cisco storage gear at the time. Levine was more familiar with Brocade Fibre Channel switches. But he looked at Cisco because that vendor supplies AQR's Ethernet switch and voice over IP gear -- and because Cisco's switches had FCIP and virtual SAN (VSAN) capabilities.

"I wasn't aware that Cisco had gotten this far in the SAN switching business," he says. "We have a lot of Cisco investment in hardware and resources. We already had three pairs of core switches from Cisco -- in our trading network, our data center network, and our voice network. They have the same interface, the same look and feel.

"But it wasnt a case of 'Cisco makes them, let's go buy them.' I never do that. I wouldn't use it if it was an inferior product."Levine says he had little trouble convincing his bosses that a SAN would be cost effective, but he did keep the price down by putting everything in place without hiring a consultant firm. That resulted in the implementation taking three months instead of a month or so. But Levine says it was worth it, and not just for financial reasons.

"We used zero consulting," he says. "I would not have been comfortable doing this with a consulting firm coming in here. We've never deployed technology that way. We wanted to struggle through it and bump our heads. It's not about cost savings as much as trying to be better prepared. I know how people are with SANs. It's a very mysterious scary thing that they feel they have to call out for help. But it was not as complicated as I thought, and certainly not as expensive."

After evaluating and implementing all the pieces, AQR got its SAN up and running in early 2005.According to Levine, the initial cost was less than $500,000 for three Clariions, three switches, and 8 Tbytes of storage. AQR has two Clariions in its headquarters, with an additional MDS 9216i and Clariion at the DR site [he won't divulge the location]. AQR replicates data over two OC-3 circuits. It also uses a Sun LTO-3 tape library for backup.

"I always thought we were behind the eight-ball on this technology, but I think we're ahead of a lot of others," Levine says. "You don't have to write a check for seven figures to put this in place. It cost us half a million to get going, and I don't consider what we did was starting out small."

He will look at EMC's new 4-Gbit/s Clariion systems, but doesn't see an urgent need to upgrade. (See EMC Uncages 4-Gig Clariions.) Levine says his 2-Gbit/s connections give him all the bandwidth he needs, and he still has capacity to spare."I'll follow the product line to see if it's worth upgrading, but I still look at our SAN as something we're growing into," he says. "It's more than adequate for our needs."

Levine's even less likely to upgrade to Cisco directors, because he has all the ports he needs from the 16-port 9216i switches. (See Cisco Goes 4-Gig & Big.) He says he will connect two switches for dual redundancy to servers with mission-critical data, but will cluster other servers to save ports.

"I can connect one cluster or master server to the SAN and offer shares to dozens of other servers," he says. "I consider connecting servers directly to a switch a big decision. It has to be warranted."

— Dave Raffo, News Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp.0

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