RCUK's Rawlins: Vendors need to up their game, iSCSI is over-rated

Storage Pro-File: RCUK's Andy Rawlins talks about how vendors need to up their game, why iSCSI is over-rated and why he needs chargeback to offer a proper service to users.

SearchStorage.co.UK regularly interviews data storage managers as part of its Storage Pro-File series. This week, bureau chief Antony Adshead speaks with Andy Rawlins, team leader application services at Research Councils UK (RCUK), which last year implemented a Compellent Technologies Storage Center storage-area network (SAN) when its EMC Clariion CX500 reached capacity.

Research Councils UK funds and carries out university-level research. It's head office in Swindon has 1,500 staff, while the research council offices in London and Bristol have 450 staff; there are also numerous research facilities countrywide. IT end users range from administrative staff to scientists. From its Swindon data centre, RCUK runs its Shared Service Centre that provides core systems in a partially virtualised server environment for a number of its constituent organisations using EMC Clariion CX500 and Compellent SANs.

Rawlins talks about how vendors need to up their game, why iSCSI is over-rated, why he needs chargeback and good dialogue to offer a proper service to storage users.

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A lot of vendors think they're in a service business, but the reality is they're not. If you just want a box with disks in it that's fine, but anything more can be a struggle.
Andy Rawlins
team leader application servicesResearch Councils UK
SearchStorage.co.UK: What's your biggest challenge in data storage?

Rawlins: It's a battle with people to conserve space. People are used to keeping whatever data they like, which was OK when a database took up 2 GB on local storage but is a different case with bigger databases and shared storage. This was especially the case with the EMC Clariion because of the lack of scalability, and that was the driver to getting something that could scale more.

We were having to say to customers "No, you can't have that," which is not really very good for a service provider. We need a proper charging model so we can say "Yes, you can have that, but it'll cost you this' based on the number on Gigabytes used.

The obstacle is that our Shared Service Centre is new and it's an enormous challenge to get the six research councils to implement that kind of charging model. Because we don't have the reserve of upfront money, we have to say no. If we had a model that covered upfront costs and what was consumed, we could expand at will.

SearchStorage.co.UK: What's the biggest frustration in your job?

Rawlins: Customers tend not to know what they want. They often tell you what to do, and in a technical sense, too. They say "I want one of these," and we have to ask them "What is it you're trying to do?" We need to become smarter at asking questions and they need to become smarter at answering them. It's a case of building trust; it's basic customer relations -- as long as they don't think we know how to do things they'll tell us how to do things.

SearchStorage.co.UK: What have been your biggest items of storage spend in the past year?

Rawlins: We bought the Compellent Storage Center for £150,000 last year. We'd reached capacity of 120 disks in the Clariion and couldn't expand any more

SearchStorage.co.UK: What could data storage vendors do better?

Rawlins: It took us a long time -- six or seven months -- to buy a SAN. We were dealing with three or four vendors, and we got frustrated with them not answering questions. They'd say "We'll get our engineers to look into that for you," and we'd never hear from them again. We wanted to replicate Exchange to a remote site, for example, and we'd ask the vendor to tell us how the system would work and they just didn't answer us.

A lot of them are good at selling you hardware, and think they're in a service business, but the reality is they're not providing a good service. If you just want a box with disks in it that's fine, but anything more can be a struggle. The salesmen lack experience, I guess.

SearchStorage.co.UK: What's the most valuable new storage technology of recent times?

Rawlins: Automatic tiering. It is all very well having different disk types, but if you have to manually migrate lots of data every week will you actually do it? Tiered storage has really come of age.

SearchStorage.co.UK: What's the most overrated new data storage technology of recent times?

Rawlins: iSCSI – or I would have said that until recently. Lots of people say it's cheap and wonderful. It's one selling point is that it's simpler than Fibre Channel, but you try sorting out what order things start up on the server and it's not, whereas Fibre Channel just plugs in. iSCSI works in some areas for us, but I don't know if we'll use it all over.

SearchStorage.co.UK: What would you have done if you hadn't gone into IT/storage?

Rawlins: I've only been in this job for six years. Previously, I was on the business side, funding university research projects, as I'm from an academic background. But I'm a techie; this is what I'm interested in, so I'm doing what I want to do.

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