United Rentals Buys Into ILM

File virtualization enables replication, tiered storage strategy pays off

September 2, 2006

4 Min Read
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As anybody who has tried to implement it knows, successful information lifecycle management (ILM) usually requires more pieces than any single storage vendor can provide.

United Rentals (NYSE: URI) is a good case in point. The equipment rentals company has a multivendor SAN with 15 Tbytes, a 5-Tbyte NAS and three tiers of disk storage. The firm has a data center in Shelton, Connecticut, and a DR site at an undisclosed location to protect records from 760 rentals locations spread throughout 48 states, Canada, and Mexico.

Yet until six months ago, senior systems administrator Bonnie Stiewing found she couldn't set up an ILM system that worked for both United Rentals' users and administrators.

United Rentals storage is divided into three tiers of disk. Tier one consists of high-speed Fibre Channel, tier two is lower speed Fibre Channel (FC disk with no global cache), and the third tier is SATA.

The problem was getting data to the right tiers without the users knowing about it. United Rentals has 14,000 employees, and Stiewing says at least 500 of them need to access data all the time. And to complicate things further, she says company data is growing about 115 percent a year."You can understand our need to get better management around it," Stiewing says. "We wanted to avoid telling users 'you need to get data here instead of there.' Now I can move data around without the user knowing it. We move some data onto SATA drives, the users don’t know that. They think it's in the same place it was before.”

Tiering storage also lets United Rentals replicate its primary data to its DR site. But replicating files from its NAS was a major headache. To use the NAS vendor's replication, United Rentals would have needed to buy a second system for the DR site. Stiewing wanted to use less expensive storage at the DR site. She says her NAS system also could only replicate at the file system level, so she had to replicate everything or nothing. The everything approach wasn't feasible -- it took too much time and choked the network.

Stiewing says she solved the problem about six months ago by installing Acopia ARX1000 file virtualization switches in her data center and DR site. (See Acopia Ships Its Switch.) Acopia's replication lets United Rentals replicate only tier one storage. Stiewing replicates primary storage, which makes up about 20 percent of the total. The rest gets backed up to tape. The switches also allow United Rentals to replicate to storage from any vendor.

"We were trying to replicate, but we didn't have any flexibility," Stiewing says. "Acopia lets us move data selectively, which is nice. With NAS vendors, it's all or nothing. It's like taking a potato down a straw -- very difficult to get all that data over there and keep it consistent. We were copying data we didn't need to, backing up data we didn't need to."

Stiewing refused to disclose her NAS or SAN suppliers, except to say they're major storage vendors. But she knew she needed help managing data from that NAS, and adding more NAS gear would only complicate matters.In addition to Acopia, she looked at EMC's Rainfinity and a few other file virtualization vendors -- Brocade/Nuview, NeoPath, and Attune Systems.

"We did lot of research, talked to people using the products, talked to engineers," she says.

She deemed Acopia more stable and easier to scale than the others. Of course she heard negatives about Acopia, too -- such as its large switches that sit in the data path can be more difficult to implement and manage than software-based alternatives, and they require more network resources to run.

"Basically it's inband," she says. "Some companies are fearful to add another level inside their user environment. I was initially. But things are only as difficult as you make them, no matter what you put into your infrastructure. I live by the KISS theory: Keep it simple.

"I didn't find it complicated. In the initial setup, we had a lot of options to hammer out. But once that was in place, I didn't find it difficult at all."Another issue was that Acopia is an independent startup competing with EMC-owned Rainfinity, Brocade-owned NuView, and Cisco-funded NeoPath. (See EMC to Buy Rainfinity, Brocade Bags NuView, and Cisco, NeoPath Make It Official.) Was that a concern?

"Absolutely," she says. "No admin would not be concerned about that, but as long as you do your due diligence you're OK."

She also notes that Acopia wasn't the cheapest option -- midrange ARX1000 switches list at $55,000 apiece -- but "you pretty much get what you pay for. Maybe there are a few storage products where you pay less and get more, but not many."

United Rentals' ILM process isn't finished. "We're looking at [block] storage virtualization," Stiewing says. "With multiple tiers, we find it could be a great benefit. We also have an initiative to better classify our data."

— Dave Raffo, News Editor, Byte and Switch

  • Acopia Networks Inc.

  • Attune Systems Inc.

  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • NeoPath Networks0

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