Merril eyes virtual SANs in massive project

IT managers at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. are weighing a multimillion-dollar project to deploy intelligent switches that could virtualize the brokerage’s storage-area networks and give its technology staffers central control of the data stored on the SANs.

Having completed the buildout of a second major data centre last June, Merrill Lynch is now in the planning stages of the storage-consolidation move, said Mike Myrick, director of managed storage at the New York-based company. The project still needs to be approved by corporate executives, he added. But the idea is to add a layer of abstraction that creates one logical storage fabric, with numerous virtual SANs dedicated to individual business units.

That would let the business units share storage resources, “but not have one SAN that’s impacting all the other SANs,” Myrick said. In addition, storage administrators could make changes to one of the logical zones in the SAN infrastructure without affecting the performance and reliability of the others, he said.

Colin Gibson, who’s in charge of infrastructure and data services at Merrill Lynch, said the storage pooling enabled by the virtualization plan could also help ensure that the company’s disk arrays aren’t sitting idly if users don’t need the full capacity assigned to them. “We run at a high utilization rate now, but we could run even higher,” Gibson said. “We want to consistently be at 90 per cent. That’s a good number to be at, because it doesn’t allow assets on the floor to remain unused.”

Myrick and Gibson said plans for the SAN virtualization project likely will be solidified by year’s end. They declined to comment on the expected cost, other than to say it would run into the millions of dollars.

Data security concerns will be a high priority, they noted. Merrill Lynch currently has 500TB of storage capacity spread across 16 SANs at several data centres in the New York/New Jersey region. Once the SANs can share data through the switches, business units will have to be restricted from seeing one another’s data. “We’ll be very selective with the (data) we’re putting across the virtual SAN,” Myrick said.

Merrill Lynch is “far ahead” of most users in addressing SAN consolidation, said Steve Duplessie, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass. But, he added, many large companies are running into the same problems that Merrill Lynch is — the number of SANs they have installed is growing out of control, and performance and resource utilization rates are taking a hit.

“Twenty years ago, you had the same problem with LANs,” Duplessie said. “You had all these little workgroup LANs that needed to be combined.” Now, he added, IT managers “need one big SAN that they can manage as microscopically as they can, as opposed to a bunch of little SANs.”

Merrill Lynch primarily uses director-class storage switches made by Brocade Communications Systems Inc., and Myrick said he would like to stick with the San Jose-based vendor. But Brocade has yet to build an intelligent switch that supports data routing between servers on different SANs. That’s one reason Merrill Lynch is biding its time, Myrick said. Funding issues are another.

“We’re really looking to vendors to supply us with solutions that will be reliable, fault-tolerant and resilient and will work on the scale we need them to work,” Myrick said.

Merrill Lynch is also exploring the idea of deploying information life-cycle management tools. Ultimately, Myrick said he would like to be able to have systems fail-over between the company’s two main data centres so that both can function as disaster recovery sites.

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