EchoStar builds solid SAN

Forget about electronic greeting cards and downloadable video games. EchoStar Communications Corp. has developed an internal network that transfers storage information using Internet protocols to a remote disaster-recovery facility.

Analysts say the network is a breakthrough in mission-critical computing and that it could portend a time when all major companies merge their disparate storage-area networks (SANs) into a single unit using public phone lines.

“Big companies have lots of locations, and they’re managed as disparate elements,” said Steve Duplessie, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group in Milford, Mass. “If you can tie those into one network using Internet protocols and public phone lines, I think that’s a fairly killer application.”

Rick Nelson, senior IT architect at the Littleton, Colo.-based satellite broadcaster, enlisted CNT Corp. in Minneapolis to build the network, which uses a custom-built “viaduct” to convert storage packets using SCSI and Fibre Channel protocols into IP packets.

Nelson began testing the network late last year over T-1 lines. He said he intends to have the disaster-recovery facility fully on-line in the early part of next year, using two DS3 lines to channel the data.

“There’s a lot of effort to perform this type of migration, especially if you can’t shut down production,” he said.

The work required a complete overhaul of EchoStar’s SAN and the hundreds of servers that feed information into it. The company now mirrors server data for near-line availability at its Cheyenne, Wyo., disaster-recovery facility.

Gary Johnson, vice-president of SAN services at CNT, said the key to doing such work was creating a SAN that could work near-line rather than on-line, thus not chewing up valuable production resources. “The information is mirrored by the Fibre Channel network, and the company’s main servers don’t even know it’s happening,” Johnson said.

Nelson confirmed that the mirroring works as advertised and said one of the happy by-products of the system is that he can disconnect one machine without disrupting others in the same network.

“Before this, even machines using different lines shared a single cache or buffer, and a single SCSI hiccup could shut down the whole system,” he said.

Johnson estimated that the average cost for a large corporation would be a US$1 million to US$2 million up-front payment. Nelson fixed his return-on-investment time at 14 to 15 months.

William Hurley, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, said vendors have yet to develop products that encapsulate what CNT has built for EchoStar, but he added that such products will come during the next year or two.

“Using the public Internet lines will reduce costs significantly,” he said. “We’re talking about huge savings as companies no longer need to maintain private lines.”

He also said such systems will allow companies to perform detailed data mining and warehousing that currently bog down production systems.