Storage steps up

If you think lightning never strikes the same place twice, the folks at Steinbach Credit Union might suggest you think again.

During a spell of nasty weather last summer, lightning hit the Steinbach, Man.-based financial firm’s office twice in a matter of weeks.

The event “took the whole building down, power-wise,” recalled Dennis Van Dale, Steinbach’s LAN administrator.

The bad weather had no lasting negative effect on the Steinbach storage area network (SAN). Still, it did spark a unique disaster recovery (DR) solution.

In case of catastrophe, the company wanted a way to transport data in the Steinbach SAN to the Winnipeg SAN some 60 kilometres away. But it had no means to do so.

“Fibre was our first choice, but 60 kilometres of fibre in the middle of the Prairies is not exactly common,” Van Dale said. “The local telco (Manitoba Telecom Services) did have fibre available, but they wanted $70,000 a month.”

Rather than break the bank on fibre-optic connections, Steinbach chose a more bespoke DR pipe, creating what might be the first wireless storage network.

The credit union used San Jose-based Nishan Systems Inc.’s Internet Fibre Channel Protocol (IFCP) switch to teach the existing Fibre-Channel SAN (a platform created by Eden Prairie, Minn.-based XIOtech Corp.) to understand IP.

“We avoid a lot of the problems that you would typically encounter if you just did tunnelling – simply wrapped the Fibre Channel in IP and sent it along the network,” said Tom Clark, Nishan’s director of technical marketing, describing the IPS 4300, the IFCP switch. “We’re doing address mapping and monitoring discreet sessions among devices across the IP network.”

Learned in the ways of IFCP, the Steinbach SAN could connect via a wireless link to its Winnipeg counterpart. To facilitate communication, Steinbach put Proxim Inc. radios on towers at headquarters in Steinbach, in Winnipeg and another in between.

Van Dale credited Lloyd Dueck, Steinbach’s IT manager, with leading the wireless storage project, which seems to serve the credit union well.

It supports not only Steinbach’s DR plan, but also the Winnipeg branch’s Internet connection and the entire credit union’s voice-over-IP telephone network. “You phone one number,” Van Dale said, “and just by hitting a three-digit extension you can get to anybody, whether they’re in Steinbach or Winnipeg.”

He said the network also provides remote management capabilities, so even though the credit union has two locations, it needs just one network manager.

And the price was right for wireless. “It looked like it would be about $600,000 to $700,000 for the towers, radios and everything,” Van Dale said. “Payback was 18 months and we own the infrastructure.”

Wireless may well be the right thing for Steinbach, but like an overdrawn account, this technology also raises red flags. Data travelling as the crow flies seems less protected than information travelling via wires.

Stories about wireless LAN (WLAN) breaches suggest that using un-tethered network infrastructure is dangerous. “There have been countless reports over the past couple of years illustrating how weak the security can be,” said Mark Quigley, an analyst with The Yankee Group Canada in Ottawa.

Back at Steinbach, “we were quite concerned about that,” Van Dale said. “But the technology used by these Proxim radios is what they call a ‘rifle shot.'”

The rifle shot is a tightly focused beam that is much more difficult to crack than the average WLAN signal, he explained. As well, it’s encrypted “with a very proprietary code that only another properly configured Proxim radio could interpret.”

Quigley said it’s important to separate security hype from reality.

“From a practical point of view, security concerns can be mitigated,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with perception more than anything else.…In a lot of respects, that has over-ridden how secure the networks actually are.”

Clark from Nishan said wireless is not for everyone. “I think it’s probably suited to less dense environments like Steinbach has, where they’re not having to compete with heavy usage of wireless.” In urban areas, “I’d think you would have to be very careful with your bandwidth allocation.”

Van Dale said the credit union must be very careful with client data. He seemed confident that Steinbach’s wireless storage solution would help protect and restore that precious information, should the worst befall the firm.

“We need some way of recovering from a disaster, such as a natural gas explosion or whatever, (which) could destroy the whole building. It’s unlikely, but things do happen – like being hit by lightning twice in one year.”