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VM-aware storage helps app-hosting firm manage storage without LUNs

Todd Erickson

When Glen Kendell decided to upgrade his storage in late 2012, his goal was to find an array built specifically to work with the VMware virtual machines that were prevalent

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in his data center. Considering many others are in the same situation, he thought he would have plenty of options.

He was wrong.

Kendell is a founder and president of hosting and operations for Lynnwood, Wash.-based Beyond Nines, an independent provider of hosting and services for non-profit organizations that use Blackbaud Inc.'s fundraising and donor management software.

He sought a hybrid flash system that could distinguish one virtual machine (VM) from another for troubleshooting, and could allow him to add or remove storage resources on a per-VM basis. After his first round of speaking with several storage vendors, he came up empty.

"It was baffling to me; I couldn't believe it," he said. "I thought, 'there's got to be something else out there.'"

It took several months before he found Tintri Inc. and acquired two VMstore T540 arrays. The Tintri hybrid arrays combine flash and spinning disk storage. More important to Kendell, they are VM-aware storage.

Beyond Nines' offices and primary data center are near Seattle. Kendell and his team had determined the company needed a secondary data center in another geographic location for disaster recovery. They settled on an Internap Network Services' colocation site in Dallas.

Kendell planned to outfit the Dallas site with entirely new gear, including 10 Gigabit Ethernet networking and a hybrid flash storage system. His 25 TB legacy Dell EqualLogic PS4100 hard disk drive iSCSI SAN array was reliable and easy to use, "but performance-wise, it just couldn't keep up with what we wanted to do," he said.

It was especially hard pinpointing the causes of performance issues because Kendell had to put multiple customers on each LUN. "If there was a bottleneck somewhere, it was hard sometimes to narrow down," he said.

Kendell started his vendor and system research in October 2012. He invited Dell, Pure Storage and Nimble Storage to make presentations and bids. None of the companies met his needs. Dell only had a flash caching product, Pure Storage only had an all-flash array, and Nimble Storage managed capacity the same way as his EqualLogic system -- by creating up to 256 LUNs per system and placing multiple customers on each LUN.

He found Tintri while rifling through IT message boards. Kendell said he was nervous at first because Tintri was new and not as well-known as some of the other startups out there.

"This is the basis of our business," Kendell said, "and if I make a wrong decision, it could be disastrous."

In January 2013, Kendell decided to give Tintri a try despite his jitters, and brought in the T540 systems with 12 TB each of usable capacity for the Dallas data center.

"At the end of the day, the [array's] management was what sold me on it," he said. "Because it's VM-aware, it's not just dumb storage, and it can see inside the VMDK [virtual machine disk file] so we can see exactly what's happening on a per-VM level. We get that management granularity that we didn't have before."

He can also pin VMs to flash storage with a right-click of his mouse if a customer needs additional performance.

The units were installed in March 2013, and the Beyond Nines team put all its new equipment in Dallas through six weeks of testing before migrating production VMs onto the T540s in May.

Beyond Nines uses Veeam Software's Backup & Replication to back up data in the Dallas data center daily to an ExaGrid Systems EX13000E deduplication disk target, and then replicates that data to an ExaGrid EX7000 in Seattle. Having a backup of his backup gives Kendell peace of mind, and also allows him to offer his customers a sandbox service for training, testing and development.

The one complaint Kendell said he has about Tintri is that he has to upgrade the array's firmware from the console. "You have to be in front of the unit and connect a special cable to it," he noted.

Internap offers a remote service in the Dallas data center that lets Kendell upgrade the Tintri units without travelling, but it's not ideal. Kendell said he has been assured that changing that upgrade process is on Tintri's roadmap.


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