Start-up saves shekels with software-based iSCSI SAN

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Start-up saves shekels with software-based iSCSI SAN

Antony Adshead, UK bureau chief
Alchemy Plus, a Scotland-based software-as-a-service start-up, has implemented a Datacore software-based iSCSI SAN to support its virtualised server environment in a £120,000 project to equip its first data centre. Datacore and its software-based approach won out on cost grounds over an EMC Clariion array, which would have required double the outlay.

Alchemy Plus delivers IT services remotely to around 100 businesses across the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Last year it established its first data centre at Dingwall, near Inverness, from where it serves mostly Microsoft business applications and email – some customer-dedicated, some shared, - from 61 VMware virtual servers on eight Dell PowerEdge servers on a utility computing basis. The data centre is the initial phase of planned growth; a larger facility of up to 20,000 sq ft is to be established by 2010.

We serve up storage volumes to ESX servers, giving them 2 TB. As far as they can tell they have access to that much space. They don't of course.
Steve Chisolm
CEOAlchemy Plus
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We serve up storage volumes to ESX servers, giving them 2 TB. As far as they can tell they have access to that much space. They don't of course.
Steve Chisolm
CEOAlchemy Plus
Alchemy Plus spent six months evaluating storage products to support the VMware environment and ended up with a shortlist of Datacore SANmelody and an EMC Clariion storage array. The company chose SANmelody, which forms two nodes running on Windows, on two Dell PowerEdge servers presenting dual Fibre Channel and iSCSI connections to the VMware environment. The solution combines Ultra-wide SAS and SATA drives giving 4.5 TB physical storage presented as 14 TB virtual storage using thin provisioning. The ultra-wide SAS disks are used for database and email stores, with general file access on SATA drives.

Interconnects are via a combination of Fibre Channel and iSCSI, with the former used for virtual servers that require high-speed access, while iSCSI is used for less speed-dependent virtual machines, as well as the backup server. The two nodes are load-balanced between them and make use of synchronous mirroring and auto recovery. Alchemy Plus also bought the Asynchronous Internet Mirroring option for SANmelody, which allows its customers to replicate data from their location to the provider.

The total outlay on SANmelody software and disk hardware was about half of what the firm would have spent on EMC equipment, said David Massey, chief technology officer at Alchemy Plus. "We looked at EMC, Nexsan [Technologies, and] HP, and the main problem we had was that the cost was prohibitive," he said. "Those companies are household names, but Datacore offered flexibility, and an almost disruptive advantage in cost. "In the end," he continued, "we spent £40,000 on storage hardware, which gave 4 TB of capacity. We were looking at £75,000 for 1.2 TB of EMC Clariion which means Datacore won out in storage capacity by about 4:1 and on cost by about 2:1."

Alchemy Plus is a young company but has plans to expand its business rapidly at a rapid pace over the coming years to serve a large number of customers in a wide geographic area. Users can scale SANmelody by adding more physical drives, to a maximum capacity of 48 TB. Meanwhile, thin provisioning allows storage to be allocated virtually to applications, but not provided physically until user-set thresholds – in Alchemy Plus's case, 85% – are approached. This feature means that instead of guessing about customer usage up front, a business can allocate capacity notionally and expand physically as actual need emerges, said Steve Chisolm, CEO of Alchemy Plus.

"We serve up storage volumes to ESX servers, for example, giving them 2 TB, and as far as they can tell, they have access to that much space," Chisholm said.. "They don't, of course, but Datacore tells us how much has been provided to a VMware server and alerts us when more physical disk is required, depending on the threshold set."

Alchemy Plus had to determine whether there would be any throughput issues handling storage traffic from the consolidated and virtualised server environment. The process of putting many virtual servers into a single physical device means that a potentially far greater volume of traffic competes for bandwidth via the same amount of physical infrastructure, especially for network-heavy applications such as backup.

Because of its customer profile, Alchemy Plus was satisfied that its storage network could cope with demand, said Chisolm. "Throughput was something we had to look at," he said. "But we are within standard levels of consolidation on a par with industry norms, and most of our traffic is providing services to SMEs, so each company's volume isn't massive."

Datacore SANmelody is among a number of emerging software-based, – often iSCSI, – storage products which virtualise heterogenous disk systems into shared storage resources. These have arisen as an alternative to hardware-centric products from vendors such as LeftHand Networks, Open-E, Seanodes and Stormagic .

Such products are particularly suited to smaller businesses because of the cost benefit of only having to pay for software and generic storage hardware.

Scottish-based software-as-a-service start up, Alchemy Plus, has implemented a Datacore software-based iSCSI SAN to support its virtualised server environment in a £120,000 project to equip its first data centre. Datacore and its software-based approach won out on cost grounds over an EMC Clariion array, which would have required double the outlay.

Alchemy Plus is a software-as-a-service provider that delivers IT services remotely to around 100 businesses across the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Last year it established its first data centre at Dingwall, near Inverness, from where it serves Microsoft business applications and email – some customer-dedicated, some shared, from 61 VMware virtual servers on eight Dell Poweredge machines on a utility computing basis. The data centre is the initial phase of planned growth in which a much larger facility of up to 20,000 sq ft is to be established by 2010.

@53601 Alchemy Plus spent six months evaluating storage products to support the VMware environment and ended up with a shortlist of Datacore SANmelody and an EMC ClARiiON array.

The company chose the SANmelody product, which forms two nodes running on a Windows OS, on two Dell Poweredge servers presenting dual Fibre Channel and iSCSI connections to the VMware environment. The solution combines Ultra-wide SAS and SATA drives giving 4.5 TB physical presented as 14 TB virtual using thin provisioning. Ultra wide SAS disks are used for database and email stores, with general file access on SATA drives.

Interconnects are via a combination of Fibre Channel and iSCSI with the former used for virtual servers that require high speed access. iSCSI is used for less speed-dependent virtual machines, as well as applications such as the backup server. The two nodes are load balanced between them and make use of synchronous mirroring and auto recovery. Alchemy Plus also bought the Asynchronous Internet Mirroring option, which allows its customers to replicate data from their location to the provider.

The key benefits for Alchemy Plus have been cost and flexibility. The total outlay on SANmelody software and disk hardware was half of what the firm would have spent on EMC equipment, said David Massey, chief technology officer at Alchemy Plus.

He said, "We looked at EMC, Nexsan Technologies, and HP, and the main problem we had was that the cost was prohibitive. Those companies are household names, but Datacore http://www.datacore.com/ offered flexibility, and an almost disruptive advantage in cost. In the end we spent £40,000 on storage hardware which gave 4 TB of capacity. We were looking at £75,000 for 1.2 TB of EMC Clariion which means Datacore won out in storage capacity by about four to one and on cost by about two to one."

In addition to affordability, a key benefit is the flexibility of the product. Alchemy Plus is a young company but has plans to expand its business at a rapid pace over the coming years to serve a large number of customers in a wide geographic area.

A key feature here is the ability of SANmelody to scale by adding more physical drives, with maximum capacity of 48 TB possible. Meanwhile, thin provisioning allows storage to be allocated virtually to applications, but not provided physically until user set thresholds – in Alchemy Plus's case, 85% – are approached. Such a feature means the business doesn't have to make guesses about customer usage up front, but can allocate capacity notionally and expand physically as actual need emerges, said Alchemy Plus CEO Steve Chisolm.

Chisolm said, "We serve up storage volumes to ESX servers, for example, giving them 2 TB and as far as they can tell they have access to that much space. They don't, of course, but Datacore tells us how much has been provided to a VMware server and alerts us when more physical disk is required, depending on the threshold set."

A key challenge for Alchemy Plus was to determine whether there would be any throughput issues handling storage traffic from the consolidated and virtualised server environment. The process of putting many virtual servers into a single physical device means that a greater volume of traffic competes for bandwidth via the same amount of physical infrastructure, especially for network-heavy applications such as backup.

Alchemy Plus, because of its customer profile, was happy that its storage network could cope with demand, said Steve Chisolm. "Throughput was something we had to look at but we are within standard levels of consolidation on par with industry norms and most of our traffic is providing services to SMEs so each company's volume isn't massive."

Datacore SANmelody is among a number of emerging software based, often iSCSI, storage products which virtualise heterogenous disk systems into shared storage resources. These have arisen as an alternative to hardware-centric products from vendors including Lefthand Networks, Open-E, Seanodes and Stormagic .

Such products are suited to smaller businesses because of the cost benefit of only having to pay for software and generic storage hardware.


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