Elevator Company Takes Fibre Channel To The Top

When you're shipping a custom glass elevator to a client, the proper packaging and handling is everything. And that helps to explain why customer service representatives at Minnesota Elevator Inc.

November 24, 2003

4 Min Read
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When you're shipping a custom glass elevator to a client, the proper packaging and handling is everything. And that helps to explain why customer service representatives at Minnesota Elevator Inc. needed quick access to digital photos stored on its disk drives for handling inquiries from their clients around the world. The custom elevator manufacturer photographs everything from brackets to the shipping crates being loading onto delivery trucks.

So if the glass elevator arrives cracked, the company can determine whether it was packaged properly and how it was damaged. Or if a part is missing, they can check whether it got packed with the shipment.

But Minnesota Elevator's customer reps couldn't get all of that data at their fingertips. The company's digital photos were eating up direct-attached storage device (DASD) capacity, so much of this data had to be moved to archived disks."We couldn't get enough storage online for them," said Mike Burns, director of information systems for the Mankato, Minn.-based maker of custom elevators. "If it was an older job, they had to dig out the CDs."

DASD wasn't sufficient for Minnesota Elevator's AutoCAD drawings, either. Each custom elevator has its own designs, and these drawings " which can be as large as 85 Mbytes per project -- don't get reused.

The company also generates detailed AutoCAD-based information packages on elevator orders for its architect clients. Minnesota Elevator's terabyte of CAD data is growing at about 35 percent a year, and its overall data storage, at about 50 percent a year, Burns said. Its SAN capacity grew from one to 3 Tbytes in the past nine months, mostly due to its growing CAD files.The privately held company, which makes custom glass, freight and other specialized elevators for airports, hotels, schools, hospitals and industrial plants and supplied 20 heavy freight elevators for Los Angeles International Airport's recent renovation project, sells directly to architects and contractors as well as on an OEM basis to big-name elevator manufacturers such as Schindler. Minnesota Elevator teamed with Schindler on the multi-million dollar freight elevator deal for LAX.

The custom elevator business, like Minnesota Elevator's product, goes up and down. About five years ago, the company's business doubled when one of its main competitors went belly up, and then hit another growth spurt two years ago during a commercial building boom.

That, along with the increase in CAD drawings, intensified the company's need for a storage-area network (SAN) that could grow with it. Its former hub-based Compaq backup system, which sent data to a tape library, was at capacity. "We just couldn't scale our storage enough " that was our biggest concern," Burns said.

The company's Fibre Channel SAN, which it installed over a year ago, has plenty of headroom with two gigabytes of storage space and room for expansion space. Minnesota Elevator chose the Brocade Silkworm SAN switch and Adaptec SANbloc Dual RAID array with 14 Seagate drives for cost reasons and because the architecture is component-based, so it's easy to add disk capacity as needed.

At the time the company issued its RFP for the storage system, iSCSI was still too new so Fibre Channel was the only option, Burns said. Minnesota Elevators spent about $100,000 on the SAN, which it purchased through St. Cloud-based reseller Marco Inc. "We just pop another enclosure on, populate it with drives and away we go," Burns said.So how do companies like Minnesota Elevator, with their storage bursting at the seams, decide whether to go with more DASD, Fibre Channel, iSCSI or network-attached storage? Companies typically select their storage architecture based on their application requirements, their IT staff's comfort level with Fibre Channel, data availability and performance, budget and their long-term strategy, said Nancy Marrone-Hurley, senior analyst for Enterprise Storage Group, Portland, Ore.

Minnesota Elevator's SAN sped up retrieval time for its larger CAD files by about 30 percent. But it wasn't just a matter of plug and play. Minnesota Elevator's SAN nearly got stuck on the ground floor when during its initial testing, it couldn't add drives to its Windows servers when it began partitioning the disk space.

Burns said the problem turned out to be a flaw in how Windows handles so-called dynamic or expandable disks, where you can create additional disk space without destroying your existing data. The company had to convert the drives in Windows to dynamic first. Then it could expand the drives, he said.

Minnesota Elevator now is looking at disk-to-disk backup for nearline storage. "As we continue to grow, we have more data and the smaller our backup window gets," Burns said.

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