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SAN complexity drives enterprises to manage storage via virtualization

Virtualization is spreading from servers to storage, speeding up provisioning and lowering costs and complexity in the data center. Some IT administrators see clear improvements when they adopt virtualization to manage storage, although there are drawbacks.

Storage volumes are growing to support emerging business applications, such as data analytics. In 2012, storage systems capacity globally surged 27% year-over-year to surpass 20 exabytes, analyst firm IDC's

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research shows. Storage virtualization offers an economical adoption incentive: Businesses can "cut storage costs by 20% to 60%," said Mark Peters, a senior analyst who focuses on storage for Milford, Mass.-based IT research and advisory firm Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG).

Storage virtualization decouples hardware and software, adding a layer between the physical infrastructure and logical functions to simplify deployment and maintenance. Storage virtualization has found its niche with enterprises that manage storage area networks, disguising SAN complexity so that storage administrators can automate more functions, streamline deployments and more easily reconfigure devices.

Virtual storage presents a single, centrally managed storage device that actually comprises a pool of multiple physical, networked storage devices. Virtualizing storage goes hand-in-hand with server virtualization. Whenever companies deploy new virtualized machines, they need to provision storage capacity. If the server deployment takes a few minutes and the storage deployment takes hours or even days, the business agility of virtualization is wasted.

Enterprises in diverse business fields have virtualized storage.

KishHealth System, a private community health provider in DeKalb, Ill., uses about 50 terabytes (TB) of data and has already virtualized the majority of its 300 servers. When KishHealth began to digitize patient records in 2010, the company sourced a new storage infrastructure that would be easier to use and faster to deploy, without any downtime for migration. Over about six months, KishHealth implemented Hewlett-Packard's 3PAR StoreServ Storage, HP StoreOnce Backup and HP StoreAll Storage systems, upgrading from 16 storage spindles to 192.

The result: Response time on the electronic medical record (EMR) system improved by 60%. System backups that previously took four hours were reduced to 30 minutes. Virtualizing storage also improved storage efficiency. HP StoreOnce Backup reduced KishHealth's data storage consumption by 92% for its medical imaging system. System provisioning features shrank the storage space needed for EMR by 62%.

KishHealth's IT administrators use the HP management console as a single window to administer and optimize storage systems, including remote replication to disaster recovery sites, nondisruptive online system upgrades and system performance monitoring.

Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, an international law firm with more than 1,500 employees, was running out of capacity in 2010 and needed to expand its data center and storage system. Planning and executing data migrations was taking up a lot of time -- "sometimes bringing our systems down for days," said Alexander Diaz, enterprise development manager at the firm.

The law office began looking for storage options that matched the flexibility it had previously achieved with VMware server virtualization. The company used EMC storage already, so it selected EMC's VPLEX virtual storage technology. The system enabled IT teams to pool two data centers, freeing the processing and storage of applications, such as Microsoft's SQL Server, from one physical location.

Virtualizing storage improved system availability. The law firm migrated 250 live systems and 150 TB of data to a new data center 25 miles away in 15 seconds and without downtime. The time for provisioning new storage to applications fell from multiple weeks to just 40 minutes.

Downsides to virtualizing storage

While using virtualization to manage storage improves performance, it also presents companies with new challenges. "Many companies have been hesitant to adopt storage virtualization because it requires that their staff develop new skill sets," ESG's Peters said.

Also, because it is in a nascent stage, storage virtualization does not include many of the amenities found with more mature data center products. Katten, Muchin, Rosenman's Diaz pointed out that they manage VPLEX virtual storage with command line interfaces rather than graphical ones.

A primer on virtualization to manage storage

Virtualized storage vendor offerings

Storage virtualization considerations

Buyer's checklist for storage virtualization tools

While most storage vendors now include some virtualization features in their products, the shift to multivendor storage management via virtualization is just slowly beginning.

Diagnosing performance problems on virtual storage can be challenging. Virtualization adds multiple levels of abstraction, obscuring the specific cause of any application performance problem.

"Storage virtualization increases automation, which speeds up deployments, reduces maintenance and lowers costs," ESG's Peters said. Despite the known issues, such as troubleshooting and training, "the benefits are so great more companies will adopt the technology."

About the author:

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in cloud computing and data-center-related topics. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

This was first published in July 2013

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