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Consolidation scores big at sports venue design firm

Sports stadium design firm HOK was facing a fourth and long situation with its data, but converted with the help of a SAN.

In the past, architects stored blueprints in banks of large file cabinets. Today, HOK Sport+Venue+Event, a sports venue design firm, renders plans on computers, not paper. Until recently, however, HOK S+V+E took a file cabinet-like approach to storing its digital "blueprints."

"We used banks of Dell servers with direct-attached storage capacity of as much as 100G Bytes to 200G Bytes each," said Dave Kessler, IT director at HOK S+V+E. "When we filled one system up, we'd buy a new server."

If HOK S+V+E had been a small company handling only projects requiring minimal amounts of storage, the direct-attached method would have sufficed. That's not the case, however. Kansas City, Mo.-based HOK S+V+E has designed such famous arenas as San Francisco's PacBell Park and the Sydney Olympic venues and is currently working on facilities for the Beijing Olympics. The company also has offices in Brisbane, Australia, and London. It employs more than 300 people.

HOK S+V+E's designers create large drawing files, using San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc.'s AutoCAD and Architectural Desktop applications. An in-house proprietary application called HOK drawVision is used for 3-D design. In addition, custom software is used to design animation and live-action video products for customers. In the in-house model shop, laser devices attached to computers scan digital drawings and cut out plastic parts for building models.

All of these digital creations are gigabyte-hungry, so by last year the company was using almost 20 Dell servers for storage.

"This was unwieldy to manage because all these different servers had different files on them," Kessler said. "To simplify management, we knew we had to get rid of a bunch of those servers."

Scaling up was difficult with the direct-attached storage system. "We'd fill one server's storage up and then buy a new server with direct-attached storage," he explained. "Then it took quite a bit of time to move data from the one server to another."

Moving data while the systems were running was scary. There was always the risk of a failure, which would cause downtime and could destroy data.

"It's like changing the oil while the engine is running," Kessler said. "With direct-attached storage, as long as a server is running you're okay, but if something happens to that server, you're dead in the water."

Taking systems down while moving data wasn't acceptable from a productivity standpoint either.

"We have architects working almost 24 hours a day," Kessler said. "That's why we need a storage system with high availability."

Kessler did some research and determined that high availability could have been achieved by clustering the servers or by using a storage area network (SAN). "Clustering technologies can be sophisticated, and it can be very costly to achieve the same level of quality with a cluster as you can with a SAN," he said.

Using a SAN, Kessler could consolidate storage onto fewer servers, reducing costs. "A SAN makes replacement of servers quick and economical, because I don't have to buy a bunch of storage or manually move data when I buy a new server," he said.

Kessler evaluated SAN systems from Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Computer Corp., his firm's longtime server vendor, and Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC Corp. He was "super-impressed" with EMC's Symmetrix, a data storage system that can cost several million dollars. But the price tag was too high for HOK S+V+E.

Luckily, just as Kessler was evaluating products, another option emerged. In October 2001, EMC crafted a deal that enabled Dell to resell EMC's lower-level CLARiiON storage systems.

"So, I could have a SAN I really wanted, and it would mesh 100 percent with my Dell equipment," Kessler said.

Kessler's IT team implemented a SAN at HOK S+V+E's Kansas City location, using Dell/EMC CLARiiON FC4700 with an initial storage capacity of 2T Bytes. A high-availability storage platform, the Dell/EMC FC4700 has a 2G Byte Fibre Channel option and a scalable architecture that can be expanded from gigabytes to terabytes as storage growth requires.

During the implementation, a Dell representative transferred data from the direct-attached systems to the SAN without taking the network down. At the end of the SAN deployment, Kessler had taken his server count down to 10.

With the SAN, management and server upgrades are no longer time-consuming. Using EMC ControlCenter Navisphere, Kessler can monitor and analyze the SAN from his Web browser. The system's management tools also enable him to do software and hardware upgrades and shift storage allocations "while the system is running, and people are using it," he said.

CLARiiON's redundancy features have impressed Kessler. "Every server has two different connections to the storage," said Kessler. "If one of those pathways should have a problem, it automatically switches, without skipping a beat, to using the other storage processor or other path to get to data. Users don't see any interruption whatsoever."

When an error occurs in the SAN, CLARiiON's Call Home feature sends an e-mail alert to Kessler and the Dell support center. Recently, Kessler received an "error" e-mail. Three minutes later, Dell tech support called, saying the error was nothing to worry about and explaining what had happened. "Not only is the SAN redundant, but it also phones home," he said. "That's pretty cool."

The SAN has lived up to Kessler's hopes -- not an easy feat. "I'm from Missouri, the 'show-me' state, so you've got to prove it to me," he said. "The SAN delivered."

For more on HOK visit its Web site.

For additional information on the Dell/EMC partnership take a look at this page.

Only a few more days until the Storage Innovator awards are announced. They will be presented at Storage Decisions 2002. Click here for information on the conference.

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