Business School Learns Storage Virtualization Lessons

USC's Marshall School of Business is migrating to a virtualized storage system from Xiotech to save money and boost performance

January 8, 2009

5 Min Read
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Dan Lewis knew that his SAN's days were numbered. The EVA 3000 system from Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) was five years old. Support was getting costly, performance wasn't meeting his needs, and he knew the problem would only get worse as demand for storage began to grow. But Lewis, manager of network services for the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles, also knew that he had to meet more needs than just the demand for storage.

"We're very much about virtualization," Lewis says. "We're very aware of budget concerns. The IT group at the Marshall School of Business tries to do things that benefit the entire campus and use the latest technology." Lewis says storage virtualization lets him control costs because he can optimize the use of resources and get more performance with less money. In addition, he could make all of that happen in a smaller space with lower demands for power and cooling.

Storage has always been a significant issue at the business school. "About eight years ago we had 30 servers," says Lewis, adding that the data center grew to 90 servers five years ago. "The expense of, not just power and cooling, but hardware refresh was daunting. We went to HP's EVA 3000 line of SANs. And we went back down to about 35 servers."

But that was five years ago. "We needed to replace our aging EVA 3000 because it was at the end of its life for support and at the limits of capacity and performance." He considered going back to HP for a new system, but then learned about some storage systems from Xiotech Corp. being used in other departments on campus. His colleagues were extremely satisfied with those systems and gave them rave reviews.

Xiotech made a powerful case, Lewis says. First, the pricing was competitive: The Emprise 7000 cost about $140,000 for 7 TBytes of storage. And there also were potential cost savings from virtualization. "They started talking to us about the Emprise 7000 and the technology behind it." Lewis liked the idea of using virtualization as an abstraction layer that would let him get away from focusing on specific hardware products. And, he notes, the improved performance also made a huge difference."The tighter connection with VMware and Virtual View" convinced him the Xiotech approach would lighten his management load. Virtual View is "a plug-in to their manager appliance. You can set it up with three clicks and two minutes."

The move to Xiotech reduced his overall administrative costs, partly because the system requires very little in the way of ongoing management or maintenance, he says. He doesn't have to replace failing drives or monitor the Emprise 7000, because Xiotech provides central monitoring. "The system is self-healing. You can't actually replace an individual disk drive." He says the Emprise can take its repair capabilities to the platter level of the drive. "If they have a complete drive failure, they try to repair the drive automatically, and they have the ability to perform a factory-type restore."

Lewis says he also chose the Emprise for its ability to grow. Xiotech claims the Emprise 7000 that USC purchased has the ability to expand to a petabyte of capacity. Expansion takes place by simply adding disk packs to the existing unit, something that Lewis plans to do. "We can add two data packs. We'll probably do that in the next year. Data continues to grow."

Lewis's preliminary benchmarks showed that the Emprise 7000 was about twice as fast as his HP EVA 3000, and that was with just one disk pack installed. Once he installed all four, the unit was eight times as fast. As a result of the improved performance, he doesn't need as much storage hardware as before. And that results in a reduction in power, cooling, and real estate costs.

"One of the big pushes on campus is the green initiative," Lewis says. "We were looking for ways we could consolidate down and reduce our power and cooling requirements. We can squeeze more into that amount of space. I can make it more dense than what I have now."Lewis is just getting started with his storage virtualization project. His testing is finished, and he began migration on the first of the year. "We estimate that will take a couple of months. Once we've finished the migration, we'll take an inventory of where we are, how our performance is doing, and start pushing the envelope a little bit and opening it to research."

The school's researchers currently have a mix of standalone systems, blade servers, and an HP EVA 4400 SAN. His first job is convincing the research faculty that the virtualized storage will give them the performance they need. "Faculty can be very specific about what they want, and it's usually not a virtual machine."

Right now, the Marshall School of Business is about 70 percent virtualized, according to Lewis. But he doesn't expect to ever hit 100 percent. Some research computing, some appliances, and other specific cases will always need to exist outside the virtual world. But he has a plan. "We can offer niche services to the faculty here at Marshall," Lewis says, adding that his operation can also expand its services to the university at large.

For now, Lewis is happy with the new power, performance, and efficiency the Emprise 7000's storage virtualization capabilities give him. He's also excited about Xiotech's apparently good service, but he's waiting for something to break so he can test that out for sure. "I love when things break when you first get them, because it proves out what [the vendor] can do."

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