Airline transforms storage into a utility service

Staff manage 200TB per person

Tell Samuel Turner that on average, storage admins manage between 30TB and 60TB each and he smiles.

As United Air Lines' manager of storage utility services, he has good reason: His staffers each manage triple that.

"They manage nearly 200TB per person," Turner says, noting that although staff are pushed, such amounts are doable.

Turner says he can get away with those numbers because over the past few years, United has worked hard to simplify and virtualize its storage environment.

"Now, we're a utility service. And much like a utility, I work to optimize the storage capacity and resources within the organization so we can better manage our dollars associated with storage," he said.

"We look at the needs not only of the high-end users but also the low-end services and applications with an eye toward trying to centralize, optimize and drive higher efficiencies through reuse of structured services. And that lets us reduce our overall cost per unit of storage for the whole environment."

But getting to this point hasn't been easy. Like many large organizations, United had a hodgepodge of storage arrays and disks in place as it took advantage of vendors that were cutting each other on price.

"The rub is we needed to have resources trained on the nuances for each particular brand we used because they all operate just a bit differently," Turners said.

Faced with such inefficiencies, United made a strategic decision to narrow its pool of storage players to one or two high-level brands. The idea was to reduce costs by simplifying.

Turner said his team gravitated toward EMC and Hitachi Data Systems. Eventually, it decided to go with Hitachi as its main vendor, primarily because of the high-level features inherent in Hitachi's TagmaStore Universal Storage Platform and its new Tiered Storage Manager (TSM) software.

The TagmaStore is a large array that can handle 332TB of internal storage and as much as 32 petabytes of total storage capacity.

The unit not only offers virtualized internal storage suitable for Tier 1 high-performance storage services, it also can virtualize attached storage from a variety of vendors on the back end, enabling United to build virtualized Tier 2 and Tier 3 storage services.

"The Hitachi became the front line, the gateway and entry for all of our equipment in the storage network, as well as all of the hosts and servers out there," Turner said.

"It lets us shop and somewhat commoditize the disk storage below the Tagmas, but it also lets us integrate it so that way we can still maintain that single pane of glass. We can manage our environment holistically."

A key to building this tiered infrastructure at United was understanding the airline's storage requirements and applying smart information life-cycle management strategies. This meant understanding what data is generated by the applications, how much is stored, for how long, how critical it is and how quickly users need access to it.

Unfortunately, United's various lines of business had trouble providing the desired level of detail.

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