Suncorp Metway gets a SAN together

Suncorp Metway, a financial services group, has begun to reap early benefits in lower operating costs, improved efficiency and faster backups from the phased implementation of a storage area network (SAN).

The Queensland-based group provides a full range of financial products and services to more than 2.5 million customers. These include general insurance, retail banking, business banking, agribusiness, life insurance, superannuation and investments.

A combination of IBM mainframes and mid-range Unix systems provide all facets of computing support for Suncorp Metway's operations. As products and services diversify to keep pace with market demand, more and more critical applications are being run on the Unix platform, primarily under HP-UX. Business applications systems are complemented by NT servers which handle applications such as electronic mail.

Suncorp Metway found that as Unix systems began to proliferate, managing those machines and the data stored on them became increasingly difficult. Each server had its own storage, and the performance of each was severely restricted by the limitations of SCSI.

"It was becoming very costly to manage the storage infrastructure effectively," said Howard Charles, technical services manager for mainframe and mid-range systems.

"So we decided to implement SAN technology. As well as centralising our servers, we are centralising data storage."

The first step in a carefully phased project saw Suncorp Metway connect its Unix systems to a mainframe class Hitachi 7700 data storage subsystem. Each server was linked via fibre channel.

"The use of fibre channel delivered the flexibility of externalised storage as well as distance and connectivity advantages, and has led to considerable performance improvements," Charles said. "Some applications are performing up to 75 per cent faster, and backups are also quicker."

Next the financial group set up a network based on sharing a StorageTek TimberWolf DLT library, using Hewlett-Packard's Omniback storage management software. Initially the library was shared with tape drives dedicated to each server and a 100Base-T network for some network backups.

At first Suncorp Metway sought a solution from Hewlett-Packard, but experienced problems with the hub infrastructure in trying to extend the SAN beyond Unix to NT.

"Essentially we felt this technology was too proprietary and could not be shared with other vendors," Charles said. "We also contacted Compaq, but they were not interested in supporting an open solution, saying they did not believe it would work."

Eventually StorageTek, partnered by XSI, provided Emulex fibre channel HBAs (host bus adapters), along with the StorageNet Access Hub and fibre-to-SCSI bridges for the tape connectivity.

This allowed Suncorp Metway to share a library between the HP and NT machines, essentially providing a LAN-free backup environment.

"The future of storage area networks at Suncorp Metway is looking bright," Charles said. "We are looking forward to building on our shared infrastructure, which will allow us to implement shared disk, thus providing storage on demand."

The group also plans to move its tape library to a remote disaster recovery site 4km away (fibre channel permits 10km linkages compared to 25m via SCSI) and to connect its three sites so they can share the same storage infrastructure.

Charles said that although SAN is an emerging technology, a limited implementation can be phased in as long as the equipment is tested and proven to work together.

He advises IT managers not to buy SAN products before testing their interoperability, and cautions that many vendors are still building up knowledge of the technology.

He described Suncorp Metway's own implementation as "Very easy and quick -- not as bad as everyone makes it out to be."

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