Managing the complexities of storage virtualization

Storage virtualization is hot, and for good reason. But its benefits bring added layers of complexity.

There's an age-old choice in IT -- whether to adopt a "best of breed" strategy for the power and flexibility it can bring, or go with a single vendor for accountability and simplicity. J. Craig Venter Institute Inc. (JCVI) believes in best of breed. The genomic research company runs Linux, Unix, Windows and Mac OS in its data center. For storage, it draws on technology from EMC, NetApp, Isilon, DataDomain and Symantec.

"It's quite a heterogeneous environment," says computer systems manager Eddy Navarro. "Thankfully, we have a very talented staff here."

And a talented staff was just what was needed to master the many flavors of storage virtualization, which can make multiple physical disks look like one big storage pool. Like JCVI, many organizations are enjoying the lower costs and added flexibility of storage virtualization. But the benefits can come with some headaches. Here, five IT managers who have led successful storage virtualization projects offer advice for relieving the pain.

Headache 1: Managing Multiple Vendors

For several years, JCVI had employed software-based virtualization in the form of Red Hat's Linux Logical Volume Manager, which allows logical partitions to span multiple disk drives. More recently, the company added hardware-based virtualization in the form of NetApp's V Series system to create a single virtual pool of storage consisting of EMC Symmetrix disks and legacy Clariion disks.

The Clariion drives, which came into the data center from a corporate merger, were being poorly utilized, Navarro says. Now, the NetApp V system reformats data going to and from the EMC disks, "and then you carry on just as if it's another NetApp system," Navarro says. That enabled JCVI to wring better performance from the legacy disks.

Each of JCVI's vendors makes its own unique contribution to a powerful and cost-effective storage architecture, Navarro says. But the diversity comes at a cost. "When you are talking about multiple vendors' hardware -- and they compete with each other -- it may not be the easiest thing to get support when something goes wrong," he says. "So you have to ensure compatibility first and foremost, and you have to know in advance something is going to work."

How to cope: Study the documentation, do your homework, and ensure that your approach has been tried before and is certified by the vendors, says Navarro. And if you don't have experienced technical staff, he adds, be prepared to hire some outside professional help.

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