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TTX picks EMC SSDs, but still waiting for automated storage tiering

Dave Raffo

Freight car management firm TTX Co. swapped out IBM storage for EMC Corp. after moving off the mainframe and virtualizing its data center, even though TTX director of infrastructure Rob Zelinka has to wait for EMC to deliver what he calls "the Holy Grail" of automated storage tiering.

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TTX refreshed its storage last year as the third step in its mainframe migration to a distributed architecture to cut costs and improve the performance of its key rail car tracking application. The Chicago-based company revamped its network with Cisco Systems Inc. gear first, then switched to Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co.'s ProLiant servers with VMware before overhauling its storage.

Zelinka said he was using IBM's DS4800 array and SAN Volume Controller (SVC), but had problems keeping the system up and running. "IBM didn't know why arrays were losing connectivity with the host," he said. "They wanted us to update the firmware on every host on the array. I said, 'Enough is enough.'"

He looked at storage from most of the major vendors, but the final decision came down to EMC and Compellent Technologies Inc. In the end, he went with the giant over the smaller competitor although he was impressed with Compellent's Storage Center SAN, especially its Data Progression automated tiered storage software. "EMC was a natural fit on the open systems side – it was comfort food for me," Zelinka said. "I spent 15 years working with Clariion [in previous jobs], it's proven technology. You engage EMC on a migration, they nail it. There are always bumps in the road, but they nail it in the end."

TTX bought two CX4-240 arrays with 75 TB each, and solid-state drives (SSDs) "for core applications that require ultimate performance." Zelinka said he got the performance bump he wanted, although at a high price -- $300,000 for 2 usable TBs.

"Performance is better by orders of magnitude," he said. 'I saw I/Os that were dramatically different from the fastest 146 GB Fibre Channel drives. We have a homegrown application that manages a fleet of rail cars for us. Basically every railcar in North America is fed into this system so we know the whereabouts in real-time. There's lots of data, lots of I/Os, lots of writes. We host that on solid-state drives."

Still, Zelinka is waiting for EMC to deliver its EMC FAST 2 automated tiering software to take full advantage of SSDs.

"This is the Holy Grail for us," he said of automated tiering. "My storage administrator would rather manage the tiers himself. He's a control freak; he wants to be responsible for putting stuff in the right tier and managing it. I don't want him to manage it. I want it managed for us. EMC encouraged us to wait for [FAST] Version 2. My frustration is that I've been waiting a year and a half. I will use it once it becomes viable. But I still think Compellent is the leader with that technology."

Another reason for choosing EMC, he said, was TTX's heavy use of VMware. Zelinka said the company's servers are 98% virtualized. He took a good look at VMware, Microsoft Corp.'s Hyper-V and Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenServer two years ago, and decided only VMware was "ready for prime time.

"That's another reason EMC was more palatable," he continued. "EMC has 80% ownership of VMware, and they hand-picked the leaders to run that company. There's a competitive edge there."

Zelinka plans more changes to his data storage infrastructure. TTX was a Data Domain customer before EMC acquired Data Domain, and uses the deduplication appliances to mostly eliminate tape backups. But Zelinka is looking at adding EMC's Avamar dedupe software to streamline backup management.

"We back up servers with CommVault, virtual machines with [Vizioncore] ESX Ranger [now called vRanger], and some secondary sites with Double-Take," he said. "We have all these different backup products, and we have to knowledge base them and maintenance them. Avamar lets me take all of them and go under one umbrella."

Zelinka is also looking forward to the Vplex active-active technology previewed at EMC World 2010 in May. Two Vplex products are available now, with versions that support asynchronous replication and storage federation across global locations due next year.

Zelinka said TTX is moving to an active-active data center setup. "It would be great if I could virtualize the storage layer so the application doesn't know the difference," he said. "EMC has the technology. We've seen it, but I don't know if it's fully baked. But that would be defining technology, like the defining technology for Compellent is automated tiering. "

 


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