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Issue of September 2004 
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Storage architecture

Pooled storage is the way to go

A look at how enterprise applications can benefit when storage resources are grouped into a common pool. by Agendra Kumar

IT architecture has undergone rapid and continuous change in the past few decades, evolving from mainframe-based systems to client-server to multi-tiered, Web-based architectures. However, the way systems handle storage has remained essentially the same, resulting in more storage headaches. The next major change in IT architecture will create a new computing

paradigm in which storage is no longer tied to individual servers, offering simplification and scalability through consolidation.

Several trends are converging to speed change in this area:

  • As data-centric systems become increasingly critical to business operation, keeping data online and available becomes a primary concern. The Internet, for example, fuels 24x7 service expectations. To address this, companies adopt redundant storage techniques such as mirroring and replication, increasing overall storage capacity and complexity.
  • Per gigabyte storage hardware costs are dropping rapidly because of advances in storage technology. But the demand for storage is increasing more rapidly than the manageable capacity, fed by a growing number of data-centric applications and the increasing use of analytic applications using this data. Consider the daily archival of clickstream data on major websites—this gives an idea of the magnitude and growth rate of the problem.
  • Hardware costs, although significant, are only a small part of the total cost of ownership for storage; the costs of managing and maintaining this storage can dwarf the actual hardware outlay. The total cost of ownership for storage is growing at a rapid pace, exacerbated by difficulties finding and keeping qualified administrators for critical environments.

In short, we have reached a point at which hardware advances alone cannot keep pace with the storage and data requirements of today's IT environment. We need to change our way of thinking about storage, focusing on how storage fits in the IT architecture overall, instead of within individual systems.

The next major evolution of IT architecture will alleviate these problems, consolidating storage in the enterprise by de-coupling storage from individual systems. This shift has already begun with the strong emergence of the Storage Area Network (SAN), which marks the beginning of an emerging, consolidated storage environment.

Future Server Architecture

Analysts have predicted these changes will occur with the arrival of a ‘Future Server Architecture’ that is already emerging today. This architecture will leverage the possibilities of SANs for true storage consolidation, with server, OS, and software enhancements to manage consolidated data.

According to the Gartner Group, the future server architecture requires software to manage and access consolidated data, like cluster file systems, logical and physical partitioning, and OS management frameworks. Unix server and storage management vendors are already working on these solutions, and this architecture should become mainstream in a few years, driven by the enormous benefits of simplified management and reduced cost of ownership.

Storage Area Networks (SANs) have taken the first step in this new architecture by physically de-coupling storage from specific servers. One of the great hopes for SANs is simplification through consolidation. But the standard operating system, volume management and file system software accessing this storage is still designed for the old "dedicated storage per server" model that becomes increasingly difficult to manage as systems and storage proliferate.

Emerging Storage Requirements

Consolidated storage hardware as exemplified by SANs is a necessary first step towards a consolidated storage architecture. But achieving true storage and data consolidation requires supporting technologies that can offer a single image of shared storage for data access and data management activities. The emerging storage architecture requires advances in both hardware and software, including:

  • Shared storage hardware architecture (SAN)
  • OS, volume and file system software that leverages shared storage for shared data and consolidated storage management
  • Applications designed to leverage shared data

The shared hardware architecture is already in place with SANs, while the system software component is coming into place with a number of products such as clustered file systems and SAN management applications. Clustered file system applications offering shared data access are beginning to deliver the benefits of this architecture: namely, storage and server consolidation, improved scalability, and reduced total cost of ownership through simplified management.

Applications designed for a "shared data" or cluster-specific environment are rare and exist primarily as special-purpose applications, with a few notable exceptions in the database space. However, many applications are naturally suited to a clustered storage environment, offering a chance to adopt this architecture transparently and immediately for key components of the IT space.

Do you need to Share Data?

One might question the need for concurrent access to the same data from multiple servers. Why do we need software changes given the physical consolidation of the SAN? The answer is that sharing data solves many pressing problems in IT today.

An environment that can provide a single image of consolidated storage to multiple servers has many advantages. While a SAN lets you physically consolidate storage, this environment lets you consolidate the data itself. For example:

  • Rather than maintaining multiple images of important data, you can put critical data in a single location on the highest performing, most highly available storage devices available. This simplifies data management and potentially reduces the aggregate system capacity.
  • Load management is simplified because it is easier to add servers for applications or to switch a server's tasks to take over a different application. You can simply add the new files to a shared file system, accessible by all file servers.
  • Capacity planning is greatly simplified, as storage decisions are de-coupled from server hardware decisions. You can add new storage when storage demands exceed capacity, without having to assign the storage to specific servers.
  • Shared storage also makes it easier to provide highly available systems. If multiple servers have mounted the same file system, then they are available to pick up the load of a failed server almost instantly. Failover times can be reduced to seconds instead of many minutes.

Applications

The concept of storage linked to specific systems is engrained in current application design and systems. Several applications in the enterprise can benefit immediately, without application re-working, from shared storage implementations using clustered file systems that arbitrate access between multiple servers and ensures file system consistency.

Data extraction/loads for decision support systems today are one example of a common situation made more difficult by the lack of a single file system name space shared between servers. Extract/load operations are often high maintenance processes relying on hardware dependent scripts developed and maintained locally. A clustered file system offers a much more manageable solution. Rather than exporting and loading data, you can simply split the mirror image for the production system, perform the extract from the split mirror, and access it immediately, using a shared file system, from the source DSS system.

Application binary repositories can also benefit from storage consolidation. The problem is particularly acute in object oriented middleware environments, in which many applications need to access the same binary image of the application set. Rather than maintaining and upgrading distributed versions, a shared file system enables centralized access to these files improving overall manageability as well as consolidating storage for better efficiencies.

Database data is a special case, as it frequently resides outside the file system in raw partitions. Because the database manages access to data at a very granular level, the database engine itself must work in a clustered environment. Oracle Parallel Server, for example, has this ability, to leverage an integrated computing/storage environment in which storage and data are shared between servers. This leads to improved scalability and manageability.

Many other potential applications for data sharing exist in the enterprise space, including the rather common applications of file serving, e-mail serving, and source code repositories for development environments.

Future Watch

Although the conservative approach is to wait for server vendors to take this emerging architecture "mainstream," many businesses cannot afford to do so. Growing e-Businesses and others with pressing data management needs can achieve significant benefits immediately by moving to shared data implementations for key applications and servers.

There are products available in the market that offer a single system image and single storage image in the SAN environment. In many cases, these products are based on a mature file system, volume management and clustering software solutions, so they represent an evolutionary change to proven software instead of a completely new endeavor.

The writer is Country Manager, VERITAS Software.

 
     
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