"I would ask why you wouldn't want a SAN," says David Heyman of Kisinger Campo & Associates.
Nov 11 2009

The SAN Plan

A storage area network is a big investment, but these companies say networked storage is a no-brainer given increasing data loads and manageability needs.

“‘You get what you pay for’ is pretty good as an adage in the SAN world.”

So notes David Heyman, network manager for Kisinger Campo & Associates (KCA). And he should know: Heyman has helped deploy eight storage area networks and SAN clusters for the Florida civil-engineering firm.

A longtime SAN user, the Tampa-based KCA deployed its first one six years ago, an early LeftHand unit built on Intel hardware. Today, to house, back up and archive its numerous computer-aided design files, aerial photographs, large PDFs and geospatial information system records, KCA manages in the vicinity of 100 terabytes of capacity across its SANs and SAN clusters (mainly Hewlett-Packard LeftHand units).

“Files are very important to our business,” Heyman says. Managing storage volumes on the fly is not a luxury for an IT team serving about 200 users working at 11 locations in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Because there is wide variation in networked storage options and in pricing, business IT chiefs have to be savvy buyers, says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst for the StorageIO consulting group in Stillwater, Minn.

“Businesses are realizing that the path to prosperity is not in saving your way to the future. They are investing in IT as a means of becoming more efficient and more successful,” Schulz says. To do that smartly with any storage project, it’s up to the IT team to monetize the value of these technology purchases and show management a business return, he notes, adding that it’s important to look for return on investment and set plans for how to measure it.

For most small to midsize businesses, stretching IT dollars is the norm, and typically IT must make sound business cases for its purchases. So how can your IT organization do that? Break down the effort step by step, say IT chiefs at several companies that have made the move: Plan out the project thoroughly, demonstrate clear ROI, detail additional business benefits, explain ways to cut costs, and map out a modular rollout.

If you take a strategic approach, your IT shop will also receive recognition for smart stewardship, points out Park Kelley, IT manager for the Frost accounting firm in Little Rock, Ark. “I wanted our IT department to be viewed as an efficient, agile business enabler — not just a cost center,” he says.

Step 1: Do the heavy lifting upfront.

When it comes to networked storage, time and again IT chiefs point to thorough planning in advance of procurement as a factor to success throughout their projects.

“All the time I spent on the front end — I breathed SAN marketing materials and white papers for about two months — avoided technical hurdles on the back end,” says Kelley.

The driver for his company’s SAN deployment was a simultaneous virtualization effort aimed at reducing server clutter, driving up utilization and improving data access. The CPA company, which has 150 employees spread across two locations in Arkansas and an office in Raleigh, N.C., currently has 15 physical servers, down from more than 40, and is running a cluster of two LeftHand SAN units at its headquarters in Little Rock.

Photo: Forrest MacCormack

"All the time I spent on the front end avoided technical hurdles on the back end," says Park Kelley of Frost.

“Our implementation has gone very smoothly, and I attribute much of that to carefully selecting the product that best fit our needs and developing a solid deployment road map for knowledgeable personnel to follow,” Kelley says.

Step 2: Show ROI using real-world examples.

“There is a sticker-shock factor when people start to look at a SAN. But if you really put it down on paper, it does come out less expensive in the long run,” says Stephen McKinney, vice president of operations for Venyu, a Baton Rouge, La., provider of business continuity services.

He recommends figuring out the cost of continuity by pricing out a comparison between a discrete duplicated environment and one using networked storage. Most crucial to making the case for a SAN is the use of real-world data, McKinney says. Don’t use examples or sample data; use information from real projects, he says. “If you put down real hard numbers on a lot of these things, you don’t have to make it work,” McKinney notes, because the payoff will be apparent.

He also argues that networked storage is no longer a nice-to-have component, but an essential element in driving down business overhead. Plus, IT staffs need to think long term. “It’s an unrealistic expectation that data can just continue to grow forever and you can just throw more servers at it,” he says. “Businesses are going to have to come back to reality on this.”

To provide backup and data recovery services for businesses of every size, the 80-employee company maintains multiple SAN farms, totaling a couple of petabytes in capacity, including both Fibre Channel EMC arrays and iSCSI NetApp devices. “Direct Fibre Channel attached storage is becoming not as important as it used to be,” he notes. “iSCSI is a bit less expensive, and it’s not quite as complex as Fibre Channel.”

McKinney notes that one of the challenges for many people is justifying the upfront cost in an environment of reduced capital expense budgets. If the calculations make a SAN unpalatable from an in-house start-up expense, consider initial networked storage options available from a service provider “to at least get in the game. Then you can go in-house later with some experience under your belt.”

Step 3: Evaluate the potential benefits the SAN offers the business beyond the raw numbers.

For Eagle Physicians & Associates, a multispecialty medical group in Greensboro, N.C., it was the other business needs of the company that ultimately justified the move to a SAN, says Technology Coordinator Jonathan Raper.

To learn more about choosing between iSCSI and Fibre Channel, go to biztechmagazine.com and click on the link for this article.

Yes, the group, with roughly 450 employees working across 12 locations in North Carolina, was consolidating its server farm using virtualization. It is currently running 65 virtual machines using VMware ESX on eight ESX servers, with an additional seven physical servers. But what sealed the deal when Raper’s team made its case to the Eagle IT Committee — comprised of five tech-savvy doctors — was the equally tangible benefits that shared network storage offered for the rollout of electronic patient records, which the practice also has under way.

Between the virtualization and the deployment of the patient records application — eClinicalWorks — a SAN became a requirement for easily managing records access and storage at remote sites. Nearly all of the practice’s employees will touch the records app each day, mostly through Citrix XenApp.

When Raper broke out just the numbers for the physical servers and included the SAN cost, the dollar-to-dollar comparison came out flipped. But when he added in the maintenance and capital costs, “it became a no-brainer,” he says. The practice went from 18 to 30 servers overnight with just VMware; eClinicalWorks and Citrix XenApp added another 30 VMs on top of what the practice already had.

"We've saved half a million dollars easily without even doing any difficult calculations," notes Technology Coordinator Jonathan Raper of Eagle Physicians & Associates' combined virtualization and SAN deployment.

Raper also detailed future plans for building a secondary data center and implementing another SAN for disaster recovery. The SAN will “allow us to easily move into a DR strategy. With so much virtualized, it’s a smart business continuity approach,” he reasoned with agreement from the committee.

Eagle Physicians initially deployed an EMC Celerra NS20, with 8TB of storage capacity. It quickly grew the SAN to 15TB and just recently added another 4TB. The setup mainly uses Fibre Channel drives (one disk array has SATA2 drives; the other three contain Fibre Channel disks). “When you look at input/output performance, if you have heavy database usage, then Fibre Channel disks are the way to go,” he recommends. “If you don’t have a high need for throughput, then you can go with slower — and less expensive — SATA2 disks.”

Step 4: Point out ways to keep costs down.

There are innumerable places that a SAN will help bring down overall costs.

Don’t overlook savings that virtualization can bring to the electric bill, notes Frost’s Kelley, listing a string of other ways that networked storage can reduce business costs (and drive up the bottom line): “A thin provisioning capability is not just a bullet point on a box; it can provide a large cost savings,” he says. A multisite, replicating SAN can also replace traditional backup. And although attributing a dollar amount to the disaster recovery and high-availability options can be difficult to calculate exactly and vary depending on the services of an organization, most senior managers understand the significance of avoiding downtime, Kelley points out.

What's the most important driver for moving to a SAN?

32% Need for increased storage capacity
25% Desire for a more scalable environment
22% Taking advantage of a simultaneous virtualization effort
13% Other
8% Need for improved data security

SOURCE: CDW Poll of 446 BizTech readers

Heyman adds, “I would ask why you wouldn’t want one. What would be the reasons for not going with networked storage?” Unlike the past, when IT would have to work hard to justify a networked storage or virtualization purchase, today someone would have to work hard to make the case against one, he says. “I feel it is now more about the who (vendor), what (capacity), when (timeframe), where (which workloads) and how (objectives), rather than if networked storage or if virtualization.”

Step 5: Detail how to take the project on in small bites.

“If you have to, plan your implementation in phases to ease budgetary impact,” says Kelley. By doing it in phases, it’s possible to make it “palatable to the guys who write checks,” he says.

In Kelley’s case, that will entail further consolidation through virtualization, dropping to about 10 physical servers, and then next year deploying a second SAN cluster at a remote office to be used as a disaster recovery site. In the interim, the firm’s IT staff will likely install the LeftHand Virtual SAN Appliance product at its remote offices, which will allow them to set up virtual storage environments remotely.

Ramping up use of a SAN was certainly a factor for KCA as well, notes Heyman, and virtualization ultimately was the driver. “We began utilizing a SAN prior to migrating to VMware and virtualizing nearly our entire environment,” he says. “It was a major — if not the major — factor in continuing down that path and implementing the multiple networked storage devices we now have in place.”

The bottom line is pretty obvious, says Schulz: “An informed buyer is a very powerful and effective buyer.”

Bob Croslin/Aurora Select