Case Study: Superannuation firm gets super SAN

AM Corporation consolidates its storage resources for greater storage management

Faced with disparate systems, a heterogenous server environment and storage islands at a time when the company was undergoing a period of expansion, superannuation and investment firm AM Corporation had its hands full managing storage.

AM Corporation, which handles more than $3.2 billion in superannuation funds and holds some 160,000 client details, chose to consolidate its storage resources by migrating from a varied server network to a storage area network (SAN) for greater storage management.

"We had rapid growth in our server areas and found it difficult to manage disparate storage islands and discrete storage areas," technical services group manager Oliver Murphy said.

"The primary reason [for introducing a SAN] is to consolidate our resources and to get better data protection. It makes life easier from a management perspective rather than having discrete storage silos around the place".

For Murphy, who heads up a 16-member IT team at AM Corporation, there are also business benefits of running a SAN.

"It allows, improves and helps support service level agreements (SLAs) through a combination of performance and reliability from the RAID (redundant array of independent disks) and the redundancy features of a SAN.

"From a cost saving perspective there is the ability to slow down replacement of core systems. We now have a window into scalable storage space over our existing server platforms. It's certainly going to slow down the costs of purchasing systems with storage capacity. We'll just buy what we need and put it in," he said.

Looking ahead, Murphy sees the company's storage strategy playing an important part in giving the company an advantage over its competitors.

"Where we see real benefits paying off is the total data backup pools. In the long-term view, we'll be able to directly attach back-up devices to the SAN from a back-up window perspective. There will be a need further down the track for storage virtualisation. This will be a key future advantage for us, but we haven't fully explored that yet. That's more of a long term vision," he said.

The IT shop at AM Corporation maintains three different server environments from different vendors - Windows NT and 2000, Sun Solaris and Compaq Tru64. The SAN solution had to interconnect these varied servers.

AM Corporation invested $200,000 in the initial purchase of the SAN, which consists of two Brocade SilkWorm 16-port fabric switches to connect its varied server network with Compaq Universal disk drives running Compaq SANworks storage software.

This is not AM Corporation's first crack at a SAN. Murphy said the company tried previously to introduce arbitrary loop-based SAN from the-then Digital Equipment Corp, but encountered performance and scalability issues. In its second attempt, Murphy said AM Corporation opted for fibre channel switch technology due to its greater scalability.

"The switch to fibre channel networks got us around performance and scalability issues of the other SAN," he said.

The migration to the SAN is a gradual one, that has no definite time line, Murphy said, adding that this makes it difficult to pinpoint an accurate ROI.

"Core applications that are suited to high availability, such as workflow and mail system, will be migrated to the SAN. New services will be incorporated as we upgrade. But we won't have all the infrastructure running on SAN," he said. "There's no end point and no mission to roll over 100 per cent into SAN space. Non-core applications won't move as we don't need performance reliability with them".

The IT team are conducting the migration and managing the system all in-house.

"Our administrators had previous experience on the old SAN so we easily migrated to the new one. It's not that difficult to manage in-house. The storage area [within AM Corporation] is essentially too small for a storage specialist. While we have Unix administrators, the skill set in the SAN space is not too challenging," Murphy said.

AM Corporation is also making the move away from optical storage based on HP jukeboxes and storing workflow imaging and documents on the SAN.

"We have 1.3 terabytes of SAN capacity, half of which is available, while the rest is dedicated to mirroring [the practice of duplicating data on separate hard disks to protect against system failure] to ensure better fault tolerance in our mission-critical systems," Murphy said.

Further to its storage revamp, AM Corporation's next project is to cut its back-up time. Presently the back up window is taking between nine and 12 hours, starting at 9pm and sometimes not finishing until nine the next morning.

"The back-up window is pushing out and touching on the business day in some cases," Murphy said.

At the moment the investment company has a LAN-based centralised back-up strategy using Legato software and DLTtapes. By evolving to a LAN-free backup over the next 12 months and using Quantum's Super DLTtape library, AM Corporation expects to cut this time considerably.