Safeco Slaps In iSCSI

Insurance company installs a 1.5TB iSCSI-based SAN -- and claims it saved $90,000

February 8, 2003

4 Min Read
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While iSCSI may seem to have slipped into a vegetative state, pockets of IP SAN deployments indicate that the technology could potentially find a broad audience -- if only more storage suppliers moved to adopt it.

Insurance company Safeco Corp.'s Financial Institution Solutions (FIS) division, for example, late last year put in an iSCSI-based SAN for its custom optical-character recognition (OCR) application, which automates the image capture of insurance claim forms, converting each one into a TIF image file of around 50K.

In October, after Safeco FIS acquired a large new client, the division's the IT group made the unpleasant discovery that it was about to run out of capacity on its direct-attached storage RAID arrays. "We were only at 30 percent capacity -- but it jumped tremendously when we acquired the new client," recalls Joe Stocker, network coordinator for the division, based in Santa Ana, Calif.

In fact, Safeco FIS, which processes millions of insurance claims each year, had about 30 days before its approximately half-terabyte of Compaq DAS disk was going to fill up. "We were at 95 percent utilization," says Stocker. Egad.

So in November 2002, Stocker quickly mobilized his team to figure out a solution. They considered various options, including installing a NAS filer, before settling on an IP SAN.Originally, the group considered Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) SN 5420 iSCSI gateway but that was "cost prohibitive," Stocker says. He found a much cheaper option in StoneFly Networks Inc.'s i1500FS Storage Concentrator, which bridges iSCSI traffic on the front end to SCSI or Fibre Channel storage on the back-end. They didn't look at Nishan Systems Inc. product, which offers similar functionality.

The SAN comprises a 3U-high, 1.5-TByte Nexsan Technologies ATAboy2 array, which uses inexpensive ATA-based disk drives. Three Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) ProLiant Windows 2000 servers, each with 933-MHz Pentium III processors, are connected via Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) PRO 1000 T storage adapters to an eight-port Netgear Inc. Gigabit Ethernet switch. Clear?

"The current capacity we have in place will last for the next two years, and that allows us to breathe easier," Stocker says.

OK, hold it right there. Why didn't Safeco FIS -- which is, after all, part of a multibillion-dollar, Fortune 500 company -- have the resources to put in a full-fledged Fibre Channel SAN instead of using the fledgling iSCSI technology? The first version of iSCSI, designed to send SCSI storage commands over IP networks, still hasn't officially been approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

There were two basic reasons the group went with iSCSI, Stocker says: Time constraints and low cost.First, it needed to bring up the additional storage capacity quickly, and implementing Fibre Channel would have required a training period Safeco FIS's IT department didn't have. Moreover, Stocker's group wanted to make only minimal changes to its servers; the StoneFly/Nexsan SAN simply showed up as another drive letter to the Windows 2000 servers. "It really made it easy," he says. "This was zero training."

In addition, says Stocker, the iSCSI-based system was one-seventh the price of Fibre Channel SAN storage. "Our only other option at the time was to buy disks that were 7 cents per megabyte," he says -- which means 1.5 TBytes would have cost $105,000. The StoneFly/Nexsan bundle was priced at $15,000 for the same amount of storage. "We saved $90,000," he says. "You really can't go wrong."

Actually, you can go wrong. Potentially very, very wrong if that comparatively inexpensive system breaks down in the middle of scanning thousands of forms.

But Stocker says the iSCSI protocol has been stable and that the equipment has performed flawlessly. "We've had no problems at all -- it's actually much faster than our previous solution." He attributes most of that performance boost to the fact that the Nexsan ATAboy2 performs RAID across 14 disks, compared with the previous four-disk Compaq SCSI array.

What about the drag on host performance? One of the knocks against iSCSI has been that it has the potential to suck the life out of a server, which must handle certain network I/O functions.This hasn't been a problem at all, says Stocker: "We didn't see even a bump in CPU utilization -- there's no I/O impact. When you're dealing with file servers, the I/O is all on the disk." It should also be noted that Intel's PRO 1000 T adapter currently employs TCP offload technology from Wind River Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: WIND), which helps on this front (see Intel Gets Juiced With Wind River).

Still, at 1.5 TBytes, this is a relatively small SAN. There's no way to tell whether iSCSI gear could scale up to handle enterprise data center loads today. Also, Safeco FIS is using its iSCSI-based storage network for file access -- which, as Stocker points out, is a disk I/O-intensive operation but not an especially network-intensive one. In an iSCSI environment, a high-bandwidth application would put a lot more stress on the host CPU.

And it's fair to point out that there haven't been very many large-scale iSCSI deployments to date. You could practically count them on one hand (see Nishan Bites Into the Core).

But it appears that iSCSI is working well for Safeco FIS today. Down the road, Stocker plans to connect its existing EMC Corp.

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