FirstMerit Bank

Ohio bank uses server and storage virtualization for online services

April 6, 2006

4 Min Read
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While storage virtualization may not be catching on as fast as many users and vendors had hoped, some shops find it worthwhile. (See Virtually Nowhere.) One of these, FirstMerit Bank of Akron, Ohio, runs its online service with a well-virtualized SAN and has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars since it went live.

FirstMerit Bank senior network analyst Dave Samic says hes taking advantage of storage and server virtualization, and he’s eager to add application virtualization to the mix. (See Tacit, Softricity Extend Apps.) The way he sees it, his SAN is the key to offering his customers online banking and virtualization is the key to keeping the SAN going.

“Our Internet banking is all in the SAN,” Samic says. “Hundreds of thousands of customers are using our Internet banking site and doing over a million transactions every month. We can't afford to lose our link to that site.”

FirstMerit’s online accounts have grown around 15 percent since late 2004, when the bank installed an IBM DS4400 midrange SAN system to replace direct-attached storage. Its storage capacity has grown from 2 Tbytes to 18 Tbytes over that time to keep up. Yet without IBM’s SAN Volume Contoller (SVC) to virtualize storage and VMware to virtualize servers, keeping up with the growth would have been difficult.

"The issue is throughput on the SAN,” Samic explains. “People build SANs thinking, 'This is a magical device that will cure all our problems.' With Fibre Channel, you will achieve a good 2 Gbit/s, but on the back end you still have bottlenecks."FirstMerit’s bottlenecks came from highly accessed applications battling for I/O. For instance, one SQL application that’s part of the bank’s CRM package could have 400 users at a time.

“We were growing so fast, our LUNs were getting behind, there was some contention,” Samic says. “IBM said, 'You'll have to create more arrays.' I said 'We'll be losing capacity.' We'd have to carve up disks if we added more arrays.

"Then IBM said, 'We have this new product starting to catch on, not too many people are using it. We're trying to get some people interested.'"

Not exactly a compelling pitch. But Samic gave SVC a shot as a way of moving applications that were experiencing contention onto other arrays. By caching I/O requests, SVC let Samic spread the requests across more disks.

“You don't worry about how many servers are using this LUN,” he says. “That worry goes away. You get a set of disks in, point them toward SVC, and you have a single interface. You create a virtual disk, point it toward the server, and you're done. The more disk you add, SVC becomes more powerful. You have more spindles feeding your arrays. It grows with you, not against you."Was it really as simple as he makes it sound? "If you already have a SAN in place, it's not just point and click and you're in,” Samic admits. “You have to have an equal amount of free space [in the other array]. You have to free up space and reallocate for SVC."

Samic also found SVC a bit buggy in the beginning. “With any new product, you have growing pains until you figure out the quirks. In the beginning, you'd be on a page assigning disk, click the page to refresh, and it would time out. But IBM has fixed the bugs."

After getting comfortable with SVC, Samic deployed EMC’s VMware to virtualize the bank’s servers -- mostly IBM BladeCenter blades connected to the SAN. He is now running approximately 114 virtual servers in his SAN. "Without the I/O capabilities of SVC, there's no way you can have so much efficiency in the SAN where you don't have to worry about contention issues."

Samic estimates virtualization has saved his bank around $300,000 so far. Savings come from being able to consolidate servers, while avoiding the addition of more arrays and staffers. Samic is one of two storage admins at the bank.

He’s not finished virtualizing, either. “Now I'm looking to take it one step further and continue the virtual infrastructure with applications like Altirus and Softricity, getting down to the application level and virtualizing applications,” he says.— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • Altiris Inc. (Nasdaq: ATRS)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Softricity Inc.

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