Safeway's Safe Way to Virtualized Storage

Insurance company deploys an iSCSI SAN from Dell EqualLogic to save money and boost performance

February 26, 2009

4 Min Read
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Like many companies, the Safeway Insurance Company in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, Ill., was faced with conflicting requirements. On one hand, the company needed to dramatically improve the performance of its database storage infrastructure. On the other, as a financial services company, Safeway had to be responsible in managing its cost. Fortunately for Mike Leather, the company's network services manager, the answer wasn't hard to find.

"We started looking for a primary business database for a higher performance solution," Leather says. "Direct-attached storage wasn't going to provide acceptable performance." Leather and his team started looking for a SAN, but cost quickly became a factor. "We didn't want to spend the money on a high-end Fibre Channel solution, so we came to the decision that iSCSI was the solution. We started off with a need for higher performance for our databases and to have them be more scalable and flexible. It quickly evolved into everything from file storage, archiving, to replication and snapshotting. One unit has expanded to an eight-unit group."

Safeway decided to go with a Dell EqualLogic PS array. According to Eric Schott, Dell's director of product management for the Dell EqualLogic product line, a major attraction to the array is its simplicity. "You kind of buy them like refrigerators," he says. "Small, medium, or large. When you need to add a unit, they join together to become one, and load balance themselves."

Schott said that some other designs require customers buy controllers and shelves of disks. "There's a fixed size growth path. But then you get into the twins and triplets problem, so the management load doubles or triples."

Management is relatively simple because management is part of the basic package, Schott says, so customers don't have to add it as a separate item when they buy a storage system. He noted that Dell issues upgrades automatically, and that the standard management software handles the entire virtualized storage system.The simplicity in handling a virtualized environment was a significant attraction for Safeway. "We've created network-attached storage for some of our archiving using the Dell EqualLogic," Leather says. "What's interesting is that we have network-attached storage devices. One was Windows based and we just attached the SAN to that, so it's like adding storage without adding drives to the unit."

The choice of iSCSI and the Dell EqualLogic virtualized storage system has meant that Safeway has enjoyed both cost savings and performance improvements, Leather says. The cost savings came because iSCSI uses standard Ethernet infrastructure. But there's more to efficiency than just saving money on hardware. "It's really nice to have that flexibility to expand the storage at a moments notice," he says. "It's nice to have high-performance disks for your database and lower performance for file sharing."

Leather said that he's seen improvements in flexibility in other ways as well. "We’re doing a little bit of tiering the high performing arrays into their own pool for mission-critical applications," he says. "With the other volumes created, we have a larger default pool. In that group, we let the system determine where to put the data for best performance. It's the best way to utilize the space without wasting it."

As far as Leather and Safeway Insurance are concerned, the move to virtualized storage and away from direct-attach storage is a win-win. The company has found the performance improvement it wanted with the cost management it needed. "When we went from direct-attached to iSCSI, we noticed a significant performance benefit. Plus, we were able to better partition the volumes for databases more along the lines of best practices," he says. "We're also making a significant gain in efficiency. We're eliminating a number of physical servers. We spend very little money on server hardware." While Safeway bought the storage system from Dell, Leather still buys his servers from HP, and most of them run Windows Server 2003.

The biggest thing Leather would do differently the next time is to not try to fit his storage network into his existing Ethernet LAN. "I probably would have spent a little more time analyzing my network infrastructure and followed best practices rather than trying to squeeze all the disks and grow it on our existing infrastructure," he says. However, things have already changed there. "We're using a separate dedicated network for storage now on really high-end Cisco 3750E switches."Leather said it's critical to really understand the network architecture before making a change like the one Safeway made. "The network is probably the most important thing. Make sure your network infrastructure is solid. With this particular product, there's not much else you need to do," he says. With the design of the Dell EqualLogic storage system, he says it's easy to expand to meet his needs -- even though those needs turned out to be far greater than expected. "I would never have guessed I'd need 11 terabytes. We started with just under a terabyte."

Leather said that while he can provide specific cost numbers or a specific ROI, he's satisfied with the overall payoff. "It paid for itself immediately,” Leather says. "We can't afford performance hits. You can't even measure the loss of business. We can't afford our applications to slow down or our agents will move on to another insurance company."

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