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Storage Outlook '06: 'Speed is everything'

An Air Force backup and recovery specialist says he can't wait to start implementing 4 Gbps Fibre Channel next year.

Mark W. Stewart, head of backup and recovery for Randolph Air Force Base, Tex., was one of the most candid user interviews of the year when he discussed his virtual tape library from FalconStor Software Inc., ("Users flag flaw in integrated VTLs", Oct. 22) a story that opened a real can of worms ("FalconStor VTL snags on writes to tape", Nov. 15).

Contacted for our holiday profile series, Stewart, who manages backup and recovery of databases containing Air Force personnel information, said he was excited to be adding some "beautiful" 4 gigabit per second (Gbps) Fibre Channel (FC) switches to his SAN.

"Speed is everything" was how he put it -- spoken like a true fighter pilot.

SearchStorage: First, a quick picture of your storage environment (vendors, which products, how much capacity you are managing) and a line on what your company does...

Stewart: A "quick-picture" of my storage environment is a tall order. The Data Center at HQ Air Force Personnel Center is $55 million-dollar plus facility, quite large. We are, as the name implies, the headquarters for personnel services for the entire Department of the Air Force, so one might say that we are the human resources section of the USAF. What we have on disk is personnel records and hundreds of Web app servers that provide access to them. I've got approximately 300TB of spinning disk from HP primarily, but I have a bit of everything; some StorageTek, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, some XIOtech, and there are some antique Compaq arrays as well. A list of products from these vendors would require an extensive spreadsheet the size of a copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace".

We have another 450 TB of physical tape in a StorageTek 9310 silo, and another 118 TB of disk emulating tape behind my FalconStor VTLs. SAN infrastructure is almost entirely Brocade, Fibre Channel switches and multi-protocol routers (MPR's) rebadged by Hewlett-Packard, pretty much everything is 2Gbps on the SAN side of the house. The exception would be our 20 StorageTek T9940A tape drives in the silo, they are all 1Gbps, older drives.

What's your most important storage project for 2006?

Stewart: During calendar year 2006, I will be replacing my twenty T9940A series tape drives, probably with 10 or so faster T9940B drives from Sun/StorageTek. This will allow me to retain my half-million dollar investment in media, while at the same time tripling my available physical tape capacity and benefiting from its faster 30 megabyte per second (MBps) write speed. I am also going to be deploying two 48000 Director Chassis from Brocade chock full of beautiful 4 Gbps FC blade switches, and as many of the newer 4 Gbps blade form factor MPRs as I can get my hands on... they will not be available until the end of the first quarter of 2006, with the HP version to follow soon behind in April. I also have another XP12000 that has been authorized for purchase in 2006. So there is a lot on my plate, but the most important is upgrading my infrastructure to 4 Gbps... speed is everything.

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What are the key storage trends in your industry?

Stewart: Storage is storage, it seems to me, and it doesn't really matter much if you're a SAN-man in government, or medical, or manufacturing or defense... it's all storage and the only thing that changes is how much you've got, and how fast do you want it. For me, the answer to my growing headaches around storage protection has been my recent acquisition and deployment of FalconStor Software's VirtualTape Library. Storage protection, the lowly and oft-overlooked backup and recovery need, is crucial. I saw my stores of data increasing exponentially over the past few years, and that meant that my backup windows were shrinking, because leadership could not extend the number of hours that the systems were unavailable to customers, quite the contrary, as the amount of data grew, so did the desire for five "9's" system up-time, so they actually took time away from the backups. Virtual tape was the answer for me, and if it was that important to me in my corner of storage, then I am certain that the same headaches were being experienced by my storage counterparts in all industries.

What do you think will be the biggest hurdles to implementing storage in the coming year?

Stewart: My only "hurdle" to storage implementation is finding the time and talented help to get the job done. Although I have a full staff, there are no open seats in my area, all but one is relatively new at this, still learning, and the learning curve is steep. Technologies are introduced each year that have some fundamental impact on my world, and training dollars to keep pace with technology changes are almost non-existent. I am constantly putting out fires, I have a job, a responsibility, that keeps me hopping 60 hours a week, and I am on-call 24x7. So, rolling out a new widget just adds to my workload. I need more hours in a day and some qualified help, and I could perform miracles.

What storage technologies are you evaluating for 2006? What looks interesting to you?

Stewart: SRM and HSM will be on the screen for 2006.

What kind of staff changes do you expect, if any, in 2006? What skills are you looking for your staff to gain?

Stewart: I don't know about staff changes, it's not my area... although I might take a new assignment in 2006. I get a new offer every two weeks, it seems that qualified and committed storage engineers are in demand now. The offers are certainly attractive, as a government civilian my salary is capped and tied to the GS pay scale... which is peanuts compared to the kind of money that is being thrown around.

How do you see your storage utilization changing for the coming year?

Stewart: This is an interesting development, because I am truly hoping that I am able to see more clearly, and make changes to, how all that high-speed FC disk is utilized next year. I don't have the tools I need just yet, but we are looking at procuring SRM and HSM applications to bring all this space, and how it is used, into focus. I have been looking at Veritas Storage Reporter as a possible SRM tool, but I am still looking into HSM utilities.

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