Storage tips from heavy-duty users

If you think the storage systems in your data center are out of control, imagine having 450 billion objects in your database or having to add 40 terabytes of data each week.

The challenges of managing massive amounts of data involve storing huge files, creating long-term archives and, of course, making the data accessible. While data management has always been a key function in IT, "the current frenzy has taken market activity to a whole new level," says Richard Winter, an analyst at WinterCorp Consulting Services, which analyzes big data trends.

New products appear regularly from established companies and startups alike. Whether it's Hadoop, MapReduce, NoSQL or one of several dozen data warehousing appliances, file systems and new architectures, the segment is booming, Winter says.

Some IT shops know all too well about the challenges inherent in managing big data. At the Library of Congress, Amazon and Mazda, the task requires innovative approaches for handling billions of objects and peta-scale storage mediums, tagging data for quick retrieval and rooting out errors.

1. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress processes 2.5 petabytes of data each year, which amounts to around 40TB each week. And Thomas Youkel, group chief of enterprise systems engineering at the library, estimates that the data load will quadruple in the next few years, thanks to the library's dual mandates to serve up data for historians and to preserve information in all its forms.

The library stores information on 15,000 to 18,000 spinning disks attached to 600 servers in two data centers. More than 90% of the data, or over 3PB, is stored on a fiber-attached SAN, and the rest is stored on network-attached storage drives.

The Library of Congress has an "interesting model" in that part of the information stored is metadata -- or data about the data that's stored -- while the other is the actual content, says Greg Schulz, an analyst at consulting firm StorageIO. Plenty of organizations use metadata, but what makes the library unique is the sheer size of its data store and the fact that it tags absolutely everything in its collection, including vintage audio recordings, videos, photos and other media, Schulz explains.

The actual content -- which is seldom accessed -- is ideally kept offline and on tape, Schulz says, with perhaps a thumbnail or low-resolution copy on disk.

Today, the library holds around 500 million objects per database, but Youkel expects that number to grow to as many as 5 billion. To prepare, Youkel's team has started rethinking the library's namespace system. "We're looking at new file systems that can handle that many objects," he says.

Gene Ruth, a storage analyst at Gartner, says that scaling up and out correctly is critical. When a data store grows beyond 10PB, the time and expense of backing up and otherwise handling that much data go quickly skyward. One approach, he says, is to have infrastructure in a primary location that handles most of the data and another facility for secondary, long-term archival storage.

2. Amazon.com

E-commerce giant Amazon.com is quickly becoming one of the largest holders of data in the world, with around 450 billion objects stored in its cloud for its customers' and its own storage needs. Alyssa Henry, vice president of storage services at Amazon Web Services, says that translates into about 1,500 objects for every person in the U.S. and one object for every star in the Milky Way galaxy.

Some of the objects in the database are fairly massive -- up to 5TB each -- and could be databases in their own right. Henry expects single-object size to get as high as 500TB by 2016. The secret to dealing with massive data, she says, is to split the objects into chunks, a process called parallelization.

In its S3 storage service, Amazon uses its own custom code to split files into 1,000MB pieces. This is a common practice, but what makes Amazon's approach unique is how the file-splitting process occurs in real time. "This always-available storage architecture is a contrast with some storage systems which move data between what are known as 'archived' and 'live' states, creating a potential delay for data retrieval," Henry explains.

Another problem in handling massive data is corrupt files. Most companies don't worry about the occasional corrupt file. Yet, when dealing with almost 450 billion objects, even low failure rates become challenging to manage.

Amazon's custom software analyzes every piece of data for bad memory allocations, calculates the checksums, and analyzes how fast an error can be repaired to deliver the throughput needed for cloud storage.

3. Mazda

Mazda Motor Corp., with 900 dealers and 800 employees in the U.S., manages around 90TB of data. Barry Blakeley, infrastructure architect at Mazda's North American operations, says business units and dealers are generating ever-increasing amounts of data analytics files, marketing materials, business intelligence databases, Microsoft SharePoint data and more. "We have virtualized everything, including storage," says Blakeley. The company uses tools from Compellent, now part of Dell, for storage virtualization and Dell PowerVault NX3100 as its SAN, along with VMware systems to host the virtual servers.

The key, says Blakeley, is to migrate "stale" data quickly onto tape. He says 80% of Mazda's stored data becomes stale within months, which means the blocks of data are not accessed at all. To accommodate these usage patterns, the virtual storage is set up in a tiered structure. Fast solid-state disks connected by Fibre Channel switches make up the first tier, which handles 20% of the company's data needs. The rest of the data is archived to slower disks running at 15,000 rpm on Fibre Channel in a second tier and to 7,200-rpm disks connected by serial-attached SCSI in a third tier.

Blakeley says Mazda is putting less and less data on tape -- about 17TB today -- as it continues to virtualize storage.

Overall, the company is moving to a "business continuance model" as opposed to a pure disaster recovery model, he explains. Instead of having backup and offsite storage that would be available to retrieve and restore data in a disaster recovery scenario, "we will instead replicate both live and backed-up data to a colocation facility." In this scenario, Tier 1 applications will be brought online almost immediately in the event of a primary site failure. Other tiers will be restored from backup data that has been replicated to the colocation facility.

Adapting the Techniques

These organizations are a proving ground for handling a tremendous amount of data. StorageIO's Schulz says other companies can mimic some of their processes, including running checksums against files, monitoring disk failures by using an alert system for IT staff, incorporating metadata and using replication to make sure data is always available. However, the critical decision about massive data is to choose the technology that matches the needs of the organization, not the system that is cheapest or just happens to be popular at the moment, he says.

In the end, the biggest lesson may be that while big data poses many challenges, there are also many avenues to success.

This story, "Storage tips from heavy-duty users" was originally published by Computerworld.

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