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Consolidated storage management drives data efficiency, delivery

Consolidated storage is efficient. But what about effectively managing all that data? With platform-agnostic management tools and new technologies, such as virtualization, deduplication and thin provisioning, the divide between efficiency and effectiveness is closing.

Ask Dave Dillehunt, CIO of FirstHealth of the Carolinas Inc., what it cost to consolidate storage at the three-hospital system over the past seven years, and he hedges.

The initial investment, which required board approval, was close to the half-million dollar mark. Three years later came a major upgrade, then more purchases. Now Dillehunt's team is adding sophisticated management tools to track and manipulate the stored data. Maybe $2 million, all told?

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"To be honest, once we made the decision, we never really looked back," said Dillehunt, who oversees an IT shop of 60 at the not-for-profit health care network.

Of this he is sure: "I am totally convinced that had we not done it, we would have had to add staff and never realized the improvements we've gained in user downtime."

Consolidating storage drives efficiencies. But when it comes to storage, CIOs have often felt caught between the need to optimize their IT infrastructures and the organization's demand for high-performing, accessible applications. There is a growing consensus that the divide is closing, however, thanks to new technologies such as virtualization, deduplication and thin provisioning, as well as a small but growing trend toward platform-agnostic storage management tools.

"Conceptually, everyone wants to consolidate," said Phil Brotherton, general manager of the enterprise applications business unit at Network Appliance Inc., the Sunnyvale, Calif., unified storage provider.

Many companies are seeing storage grow 200% and 300% annually, and the data is all over the place. The costs associated with that growth -- in personnel, in compliance risks, in business continuity and energy usage -- are significant. Putting structured and unstructured data to bed under one blanket can drive many efficiencies.

But CIOs also have a mandate to deliver their organizations' critical applications to the people who need them. Application performance and uptime is job 1. "If you can't do that, it doesn't matter how efficient your infrastructure is -- you won't be a CIO for long," Brotherton said.

The big challenge in consolidated storage management, he said, is providing the service-level guarantees and benefits to the applications people, so the infrastructure side of the CIO's job can be optimized.

EMC Corp. does a good job, he offered graciously. Network Appliance Inc. has made it its business to bridge the divide, he said, from its "FlexShare quality-of-service software, which ensures the most business-critical applications get high priority, to the company's recent acquisition of Boston-based Onaro Inc.

Out-of-control DAS, with lives at stake

At FirstHealth, the case for consolidated storage was pretty clear-cut, Dillehunt said. In addition to the three hospitals, the Pinehurst, N.C.-based health care system includes a skilled nursing facility, three sleep disorder clinics, fitness centers, four charitable foundations, emergency medical services and an insurance plan. In 2001, the system had several hundred servers, most of which had direct-attached storage (DAS) and more than 650 applications. Storage was doubling every year and was likely to increase, as the hospital was installing new high-capacity applications, such as radiological images and electronic medical records.

"The design of choice was when you bought a new application you put it on a new server, and you bought disk storage that was physically attached to that server" Dillehunt said.

There is no point in just consolidating all these boxes; you've still got to manage them properly.
Mark Peters
analystThe Enterprise Strategy Group Inc.
Learning to manage that DAS on the different platforms was a task. Backing up the individual servers took many hours each night and, in some cases, applications had to be taken down. Physical security was increasingly an issue, as all the data stored on local disks could easily be moved around.

FirstHealth looked at several of the major players, including EMC Corp. and Compaq (now Hewlett-Packard Co.) before consolidating on a NetApp fabric-attached storage series platform. The hospital liked the depth and breadth of the product line and the consistency and ease of use of the operating system. People learn one tool that works across the product line -- a big costs savings in training.

One of the goals was to distribute data across all three hospitals, in case something happened at one, and to deal more efficiently and effectively with disaster recovery. HealthFirst was able to accomplish both goals by spreading out and duplicating the data at the hospitals. It requires much less time to back up the protected data than when everything was tape-based, Dillehunt said. With consolidated storage, the health care network can now take advantage of deduplication. It can also better execute and enforce its records retention policy. And, most important, it can put the data -- such as a radiological image -- in a physician's hands in a matter of minutes instead of the hours it might have taken with the old system.

"The only convincing we had to do was with the vendors of our applications," Dillehunt said. The hospital's core information systems vendor, McKesson Corp., for example, was initially reluctant about having some of its data managed in "a more global state" rather than on its own servers.

"We moved ahead anyway, and those who were reluctant eventually signed on," he said.

Dillehunt said CIOs should know that they will be looking at either a fairly significant upgrade every three years or a spike in maintenance fees -- a not-so-subtle tactic to get you to move to the next platform. "But if you are any good at negotiating, it is still a fairly economical process to go through," he said.

Mark Peters, an analyst at Milford, Mass.-based The Enterprise Strategy Group Inc., agreed that storage, like other pieces of IT infrastructure, is coming full circle: While it had been effective but expensive -- if not downright wasteful -- it has become both efficient and effective. Consolidation is a start.

"CIOs understand, however, that there is no point in just consolidating all these boxes; you've still got to manage them properly," Peters said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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