Mar 29 2007

Cutting Through the Clutter

Blades and SANs help two circuit courts bring order to chaos in the data center.

Cutting Through the Clutter
Blades and SANs help two circuit courts bring order to chaos in the data center.

With new systems coming online, the combination of blade servers, a SAN and virtualization offered easier management and flexibility, says Craig Wimberly, Chief of Staff and CIO of the Cook County, Ill., Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court.

“It was a nightmare,” recalls Ed Shemanski, thinking back to the chaotic system configuration that supported Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Orlando a year ago. Servers with spaghetti strands of cabling and network cards stacked in the data center were prone to failure as well as difficult to troubleshoot and fix.

Storage was also a challenge. When direct attached storage reached capacity, the Ninth Circuit’s systems administrator often found himself faced with the time-consuming process of replacing servers. Meanwhile, other servers were underutilized, resulting in thousands of kilobytes of wasted storage, Shemanski says.

The lack of a single storage medium virtually ruled out data failover and redundancy. A number of times the court lost 10 hours’ worth of data — another time, three days’ worth.

In early 2006, the court embarked on a server and storage consolidation project to install blade servers and a storage area network (SAN).

Blades and SAN Defined

A blade is a low-profile server that slides into a chassis placed in the server rack. Blades take up about half the space of standard servers and can be stacked about 100 units high. But, equally important, each chassis has its own power, cooling and sometimes networking connections, which all the blades in a chassis can share.

Just as blades allow for shared cooling, power and other resources, SANs provide shared storage for all servers, no matter what operating system they are running. Using a SAN, the information technology staff can reallocate storage on the fly, eliminating underutilization and the need to add new servers just to boost storage.

In implementing the consolidation process, the Florida court bought 14 Hewlett-Packard BL20p blade servers, two HP StorageWorks MSA1500 storage arrays and a Quantum PX506 tape library. The court’s Fibre Channel SAN holds 7 terabytes of storage.

By eliminating clutter and improving troubleshooting efforts, the system allows for storage redundancy, and temporary outages have virtually no impact on data integrity. “The judiciary knows when they need any data it will be there for them, and that’s a big load off everybody’s mind,” says Shemanski.

In addition, the ability to reallocate storage on an as-needed basis has reduced costs because “we’re no longer spinning a lot of disks that we only use a small piece of,” Shemanski points out. And adding storage no longer requires Shemanski and others to take down a service or to make changes after hours.

Triple Threat

Blades, SANs and virtualization are three important keys to costs. The trio creates scalability and lets IT target resources where they are needed instead of throwing additional hardware at every capacity problem.

The blade and SAN approach also can reduce administrative costs, lower power and cooling requirements and, because it takes up less space, might reduce future real-estate costs by eliminating the need for an expansion of the data center.

“Organizations want to be able to add storage or processing without having to do a lot of reconfiguring,” says Jonathan Eunice, principal IT adviser at storage research and advisory company Illuminata of Nashua, N.H. “It’s a lot easier to slip a box in or out of a slot than buying a new server and connecting it to the network.”

A good example of how blades can save data center space: The Ninth Judicial Circuit Court’s Fibre Channel switch modules add no additional footprint in the data center because the switches reside within the HP Blade­System chassis. In a non-blade approach, the switches would take up additional rack space.

The Virtualization Connection

An organization that has included virtualization in its blade and SAN consolidation project is the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. Cook County has one of the largest unified court systems in the world, and prior to its consolidation project, it determined storage and processing power by the amount of hardware assigned to each application.

“Basically, we had a one-to-one relationship between applications and servers,” Deputy CIO Bridget Dancy says. “A department buys a new application; we get a new server. Deploy something new; get a new server. There’s not a lot of flexibility in that approach.”

With several projects coming online — including a $5 million integrated cashiering and security system, a disaster recovery center and a multimillion-dollar imaging and document management system to maintain all records in digital format — the Clerk’s Office IT staff knew the challenge would grow worse, says Craig Wimberly, chief of staff and CIO.

“With the new developments, we knew we couldn’t just keep going along as we had been doing,” he says. “We were very concerned with management costs and the total cost of ownership.”

Outside Help

The organization also needed to manage the new systems without a dramatic increase in its IT head count.

To meet that challenge, the Illinois court worked with a local systems integrator to design and implement the system, which now includes 12 blade servers — a mix of HP ProLiant BL20p, BL25p and BL40p blades.

Four blades, the BL40p servers, are dedicated to the integrated cashiering system, and the other eight allow dynamic needs allocation using VMware virtualization software to run the integrated case management system, the records management system, GroupWise (the Clerk’s Office internal Web server) and other applications.

The result is that the office has reduced its server racks from six to two, decreasing the server footprint by two-thirds. The VMware virtualization tools let the court apps share server resources on an as-needed basis; the SAN provides the same advantage for storage.

There is also a lot more flexibility, says Dancy. “Because the vast majority of servers are virtualized, we can move applications live from one physical server to another without interrupting service.”

Why Do Blades and SANs Cost Less?

Blade servers pool and share common resources such as connectivity, power and cooling, which makes them less expensive than traditional servers.

The big difference is the simpler setup, says Steve Gillaspy, group manager for Hewlett-Packard’s BladeSystem. To connect to a Fibre Channel storage area network, traditional servers would each need a Fibre Channel host bus adapter (HBA), two optical transceivers each to provide a connection from one HBA to another, an external Fibre Channel switch port and a cable to connect each HBA to each switch port, he explains.

But for a blade system, the Fibre Channel switch module resides within the blade chassis supporting all the blade servers, which share power, cooling, backplane connectivity and management systems. As a result, the HBA on each server connects directly through the backplane to a port on the switch module, eliminating the need for the additional transceivers and cables. Using the embedded switch modules instead of external switches can reduce the number of transceivers and cables by 80 percent, Gillaspy says.

For HP, that brings down the cost of the systems. It sells a BladeSystem HBA for about $1,200 less than the HBA for its conventional servers.

Getting the Skinny On Server and Storage Requirements

1. Understand your business case. When designing a system, seek advice from business managers and systems staff. “If you want to create a system that meets the needs of your users, bring together the best minds in your organization,” says Cook County’s Bridget Dancy.

2. Include a plan for training. Ed Shemanski at Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court points out that just because SANs and blades are easier to manage doesn’t mean there’s no learning curve. This is especially true if you use Fibre Channel.

3. Become a more strategic member of the organization. Now that Shemanski and others on the court IT team have fewer problem-solving duties, they have extra time to take on strategic, rather than just tactical, aspects of data management. “We’re spending more time testing new applications and making recommendations on how to improve processes through new systems,” he says.