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Server virtualization ignites SAN project for explosives firm

Dave Raffo

A Microsoft Hyper-V server virtualization project lit a fuse for explosives manufacturer Austin Powder Co. to move its data storage from direct attached to a SAN, which its network administrator said has

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provided virtual storage and more reliable backups.

Cleveland-based Austin Powder implemented two FalconStor Software Inc. Network Storage Server (FalconStor NSS) boxes with two Nexsan SATABeasts on the back end with SAS and SATA drives in March. Austin Powder went with Microsoft Hyper-V last year, and now has 32 virtual servers for production data and another 15 or so for test/development.

Network administrator Chris Benco said he has approximately 3 TB of production data on the SAN in the company's main data center, which serves about 1,000 employees.

"We had been looking at a SAN for several years, but it was out of our price range and the benefits weren't significant enough to make the leap," he said. "Early last year we got serious about virtualization and that's when it started to seem we needed a SAN. The benefits went up and costs came down, and we took a much deeper look into a SAN."

The company puts primary storage on SAS drives and stores snapshots and test/dev servers on SATA, using FalconStor to mirror its production virtual machines between the two SATABeast arrays. "If we had a chassis failure, the mirror would be unaffected," Benco said.

He said the SAN lets him deploy and clone production servers and recover virtual machines quickly, while making backups more stable.

"With the SAN, I developed a nearly real-time ability to create and spin off clones of live production servers," Benco said. "I create a TimeView snapshot, mount it on the test/dev box with a Hyper-V host, import it, and get it up and running in a couple of minutes. It uses no storage space."

Austin Powder conducted a six-month search for a SAN, reviewing 13 product proposals from 11 vendors. Benco said he looked at Fibre Channel (FC) and iSCSI systems, but the final decision came down to two iSCSI options -- Dell EqualLogic and FalconStor NSS.

"I decided both were great solutions," he said. "EqualLogic was simpler, FalconStor was a little more complicated but had more capabilities. I said, 'If we're just managers and just want to manage the system, let's go with EqualLogic. If we're going to be engineers and make it sing, FalconStor was the better solution hands down.' We decided we would be engineers, and my bosses gave me a couple of months to learn it and make it work."

Those more complex features include FalconStor NSS's SafeCache as well as what Benco considers "significantly more useful and efficient snapshots." SafeCache boosts performance by sending incoming writes or the most used reads to a faster storage tier.

Benco said he uses FalconStor NSS to take four snapshots a day and keeps them for more than 60 days. The snaps use smaller block sizes than other SANs he looked at, making them more space efficient. He said he has 255 snapshot restore points for his virtual machines.

Benco added that he can create multiple clones of a virtual machine directly from a snapshot while the original virtual machine runs, and has those clones available for test/development without using any extra storage space. "Performance could be an issue doing it this way, so I'm not sure I would want to run a serious production app like this, but it's perfect for testing a change on a server before running it live," he said.

Although Austin Powder picked FalconStor NSS for its more complicated capabilities, the company selected Microsoft Hyper-V over VMware Inc.'s hypervisor for simplicity. "There's a few things Hyper-V doesn't do that VMware does, but Hyper-V had an easy learning curve," Benco said. "It's the same look for the Windows administrator -- learn a few commands and you're finished. That was a big plus."

Improving data backup front and center in virtual environment

Benco said improving data backup was a big benefit of moving to a virtual environment. Austin Powder uses Symantec Corp.'s Backup Exec 12 to back up data to the SAN, and also sends 120 days worth of backups and archived data to an Overland Storage REO tape library at a disaster recovery site. Austin Powder's business-critical applications include Sybase and Microsoft SQL Server databases and e-mail.

Benco said he rebuilt his backup server "from the ground up" while upgrading from Backup Exec 10 to Version 12 after installing the SAN. "We fought with backups for years," he said. "The last straw that got budget approval [for the SAN] was that this would fix backups. We re-did our backup process, and they're running more stable now with the disk subsystem and snapshots. It's a whole different world with our backups and reliability."

Benco said his company plans to use the WAN-optimized remote replication capability of FalconStor NSS for disaster recovery, and will add disk capacity by adding disk to the SATABeast or buying another storage array. "One selling feature [of FalconStor NSS] was that we weren't locked into anybody's disk," he said. "We could tie any disk into NSS and manage it the same way."

He did put in one feature request to FalconStor for NSS. He said the NSS lacks the ability to recover an entire virtual machine from a snapshot to a new host. "With Hyper-V, you can't directly import from host files," he said. "You have to have the configuration in an export format. The workaround is to keep a library of those configurations and update them manually. The configurations I have could be months old. That's fine if nothing's changed, but it's not ideal. I keep a library of configurations and marry them together to import it cleanly. I haven't found a way to automate it -- the virtual machine has to be turned off, and I can't do that every night."

Benco said FalconStor told him it will add the ability to recover to a new virtual machine host. "We'll see how long it takes them to get that feature implemented," he said.