Northern Backup explains the tipping point for storage virtualization

SAN storage offered a exponential leap in performance and efficiency, compared to direct-attached storage. Now, though, companies are using storage virtualization to abstract their storage away from hardware altogether. Companies like Calgary-based managed service provider Northern Backup are enjoying benefits including cost reduction and increased flexibility.

Northern Backup started hosting around five years ago. It began with Hitachi SANs, and resolved to grow as needed. Scaling that storage was more difficult than the company at first thought, said Brent Thumlert, systems architect at the MSP.

“As we got to a larger scale, we ran into the complexities and cost of buying one large batch of storage every 36 months, and being locked into it when they determine support is no longer valid for that hardware,” he said. “Also, we weren’t able to use new technologies that were not verified for that platform.”

Often, companies would refuse to sell storage trays for existing SANs because the products were reaching end of life, and integrators needed all their existing inventory for support. Or they may refuse simply because they want customers to upgrade to the next edition of a SAN.

“That was a tipping point for us,” said Thumlert.

The firm decided to try storage virtualization to free up some of the hardware dependencies, and chose software-defined storage vendor Nexenta as its supplier. The company offers software-defined storage that abstracts the storage itself, along with a variety of storage services, away from the storage hardware.

Northern Backup used the vendor’s NexentaStor product, and bought a JBOD (just a bunch of disks) D6000 disk enclosure from HP. It loaded this array up with inexpensive HP SATA disks, adding 256Tb of capacity to its existing 325Tb of legacy SAN storage.

The system took around a day to set up, compared to around half a day for a conventional SAN, Thumlert said. This was partly because the IT team wanted to understand what was happening, and had the engineer walk them through the process.

Northern Backup runs on VMware, and exposed the Nexenta storage using an NFS connection. Inside the Nexenta array, there are redundant drives – hot disks ready to replace any failed ones.

“Right off the bat, the cost per Terabyte of the Nexenta installation was around 60% [of the existing SAN solution],” Thumlert said. “We got that just from switching from the boxed tier-one SAN vendor to open-source software with Nexenta providing the real meat, and then going to standard HP hardware.”

The software is licensed on the basis of storage capacity, meaning that when the MSP adds more storage under NexentaStor, it will have to pay more to Nexenta. The cost increase isn’t linear, though, as a lot of the expense is front-loaded with licensing for core parts of the software, he said.

Aside from the cost savings, the new technology provided several other benefits.

“Now, I can go to Western Digital or HP and buy an 8Tb drive. If you called Hitachi they would never make that drive for those old systems,” he said.

Going vendor-neutral also enabled the firm to try the next solid state storage technology, he added. Northern Backup is using ZeusRAM drives, which is essentially a hard drive built from volatile RAM. This provides a high-speed caching service without resorting to traditional NAND flash-based solid state drives, which have a limited lifespan.

This has led to enhanced performance on read/write intensive applications such as SQL writes. Performance leaped from 2,000 input/output operations per second (IOPs) to 27,000, he said.



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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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