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Managed Storage: A Flexible Approach

August 23, 2012
by John DeGaspari
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How has rapid growth led one regional long-term care health provider to change its data storage strategy?
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CommuniCare Health Services, a regional provider of long-term care services that is based in Cincinnati, Ohio, needed a better approach to manage its data storage and backup. The organization, which owns and operates more than 40 nursing and rehabilitation facilities, specialty care centers, assisted living centers and retirement centers, and advanced specialty hospitals in four states, roughly doubled its size over the past four years through acquisitions.

That rapid growth was matched by a corresponding demand for IT services, says Jerry Williams, SQL DBA developer, who joined CommuniCare just after the acquisitions were completed. One of his first tasks there was to evaluate where the organization was in terms of its data environment, and what it was facing moving forward, he says.
According to Willliams, data storage capacity was a primary challenge. CommuniCare had relied on direct attach storage, in which databases were stored on dedicated disks. “A lot of times they over-speced the servers to try to account for growth over the life of the unit, tying up money that couldn’t be used for other purposes,” he says, noting that come of the acquired facilities had their own servers.
“We decided we needed to move to a managed storage scenario. Instead of having computers, each with its own dedicated storage directly attached, we have a dedicated storage server that we can use to manage the storage and deploy it on an as-needed basis,” he says. 
After evaluating several vendors, Williams and his team chose the FalconStor Network Storage Server (NSS) solution, supplied by FalconStor Software, Inc., Melville, N.Y. Williams says that among his criteria was the ability to take a pool of storage and divide it up among the servers as needed. Often storage growth numbers are difficult to predict, he says: “Things change, and sometimes they are big and sometimes they are small; and you need to add space to places where you need space.” That flexibility is not possible with dedicated storage in which the disks are attached to the machine, he says.
A second goal was to move away from having a dedicated hardware for each server in CommuniCare’s data center, Williams says. “Prior to this project, one machine equaled one server,” he says. “Now we have machines that run multiple servers on the same machine, in order to implement the enterprise features that we want,” he says. If a machine fails, he can move the host to another machine that is still up and running, he says.
Part of ComuniCare’s policy set is that storage is able to be shared among physical machines, and be implemented through a storage-area network (SAN)-like feature. “You need to have a network attachment to the storage server so four of the machines can access the same disk at the same time,” he says.
Those are standard SAN features, which were offered by all of the vendors considered for the project, Williams says. He says the system they chose differentiated itself by offering better control of the underlying disk structure.
Williams notes that one of his tasks was to stay in line with the best practice recommendations of Communicare’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor. Some of the virtual storage system vendors under consideration could meet those recommendations, and others could not, he says, which became a differentiating factor in the selection process.
Williams says one attractive feature of the new system is the ability to use caching products that can be put in place transparently. He has been able to achieve his desired I/O performance levels by fronting serial advanced technology attachment (SATA) disks, which gives the same performance as higher speed serially attached SAS disks. “I have a pool of higher performing storage in front of lower performing storage; and I am making the lower performing storage perform like the higher performing storage,” he says. SATA disks are less expensive per gigabyte than the faster disks, he says.
In addition, Williams says he uses FalconStor’s HyperTrac product that provides an interface with the backup system. “I can go through the storage server and I don’t have to go through the individual servers like I did before,” he says. “I get a 4-gigabyte iSCSI channel right into my storage channel, and have my backup server go to one place to get access to that data,” he says.
Williams says he is pleased with the configuration. “I’m getting a lot of mileage out of this, and it is meeting my needs for a cost picture that is very good for me, by being able to use the SATA volumes in a production environment,” he says.

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