Thrifty Storage Strategies: Long-term planning for big savings.

There are dozens of ways you can shave a little here and a little there when it comes to overall storage costs. But at the end of the day, storage is still going to be a whopping part of you budget. That's why companies that are serious about real savings take a long-term strategic view and push their plans through to completion.

Take the case of Cisco Systems. Utilization of just 20% to 30% on a direct-attached storage architecture was costing a fortune. "With no accurate method for tracking consumption and no way to plan for growth, our storage spending grew out of hand between 2000 and 2002," says Bill Williams, manager of enterprise storage operations. "That's why we decided to focus on achieving a consolidated storage model to raise utilization levels and lower TCO."

In a relatively short time, the company has taken major strides toward achieving that goal. In 2001, Cisco's 750TB of data was almost all direct-attached storage, with a few storage-area network islands interspersed. Today, Cisco has 2.1 petabytes of managed data, but only 20% of that is direct-attached storage; 55% is on a Fibre Channel SAN, and 25% is network-attached storage. This shift involved migrating nearly 1 petabyte of data to Cisco's MDS 9500 Series Multilayer Directors and consolidating 80 smaller EMC frames to eight large ones.

Cisco's experience is far from uncommon. Escalating storage costs are pushing most companies to look for cost-saving and -avoidance strategies. While some save cents here and there on quick fixes, the real savings come through long-term planning. Large organizations, in particular, are finding that the sheer volume of data that exists in disparate systems necessitates the rearchitecting of the storage infrastructure.

Taking the Long View

By consolidating storage and migrating to networked storage, Cisco has taken annual total cost of ownership from 40 cents per megabyte to 10 cents per megabyte, says Williams. And there may still be room for improvement. Cisco has a target of 8 cents per megabyte this year.

Other organizations are taking a similarly long-range view to slash their storage budgets. The 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force, for example, experienced problems with its direct-attached storage architecture. Backups were slow, systems took too long to recover, and performance suffered badly.

The 45th Space Wing has spent the past several years implementing a centralized storage environment consisting of BrightStor Enterprise Backup software from Computer Associates International and storage hardware from Brocade Communications Systems, EMC and Exabyte. By pooling storage in large repositories, capacity increased by 600% to 6.5TB, file and print servers were reduced by 33%, and backup times decreased by 83%.

"From 12 hours per night for backup, we are down to four hours," says Glenn Exline, manager of advanced technology at Patrick Air Force Base. The economic payoff has been impressive. The costs to date have totaled about US$1.4 million, he says, while the savings are about US$2 million.

To prevent storage costs from mushrooming, Exline stresses understanding the specific SAN design. Almost all storage vendors have multiple tiers of products. "By understanding your requirements, you can balance performance, cost and future growth," says Exline. "That way, you avoid buying an ICBM when all you needed was a fly swatter."

A case in point: The smaller EMC Clariion array proved a better fit than EMC's high-end Symmetrix array. "There are lots of situations that call for larger systems, but they were overkill in our case," says Exline.

Surviving the Learning Curve

Choosing a system is a decision that can be made only after you do your homework. In reality, however, that may not be possible until you have completed your first SAN. And by then, it may be too late.

"Any enterprise must get a qualified VAR/integrator involved, as there is nothing like experience when it comes to SANs," says Steve Duplessie, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "There can be a ton of gotchas if you aren't prepared upfront."

Exline agrees. He's seen IT departments attempt huge storage projects with impossible deadlines. There is a learning curve that has to be respected, he says, and he preaches training on new storage products. "By being self-sufficient to a large degree, we save a lot on support," says Exline.

Another way to reduce costs is through consolidation. Golden Gate University in San Francisco is nearing the end of a three-year migration of its storage environment from six operating systems to Linux and Windows. The university is also consolidating servers, databases and enterprise resource planning systems.

"Leveraging Linux with an enterprise storage tier has reduced server acquisition costs by over 20%," says Keith Rajecki, Golden Gate University's IT infrastructure manager. "TCO in our old storage environment was 10 times greater than it is today."

He reports that maintenance would have cost 250% more on a Sun Solaris environment than it does on a Dell/Linux combination. IT operating costs are down 40%, the number of servers has been cut from 100 to about 50, and head count is 20% lower.

"Consolidation and standardization combined with a focus on storage management as an ongoing activity will enable most organizations to cut storage costs," says Rajecki.

No End in Sight

Simple economics dictates planning for the long haul. Cisco, for instance, recently consolidated its storage budget across all business units and has a single budget for all enterprise storage needs. "Because storage is such a major cost, it requires long-term planning to keep costs under control," says Cisco's Williams.

Similarly, the 45th Space Wing is refusing to rest on its storage laurels. It implemented backup to virtual tape via Alacritus Software's Securitus virtual tape appliances. It also added another 28TB of mixed Fibre Channel and ATA storage to support Exchange 2003 clusters, virtual tape backup and cross-site mirroring (using EMC's SnapView and SAN Copy). New tape libraries from Qualstar were added using Super Advanced Intelligent Tape technology to increase per-tape density and reduce off-site vaulting charges.

"Estimated ROI is 14 months, with a three-year savings of approximately US$400,000 just in tape and vaulting charges," says Exline.

Robb is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Contact him at drewrobb@attbi.com.

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