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Users turn to SANs to manage Exchange Server

In part one of a two-part series focused on Exchange Server and storage, users say migrating Exchange Server stores to the SAN is helping the popular email application evolve.

Part one of a two-part series.

According to users and industry experts, Microsoft could never have envisioned the way email would come to be used when it designed Exchange 10 years ago. But now, the Windows email system has 80% market share, and the corporate world has become all but completely dependent on email as a communications tool, a collaboration enabler, a virtual secretary and a file archiving system. It's clear something's got to give when it comes to Exchange -- and users say they've found the best way to keep email manageable is to let their SANs do more of the work.

Lee Hudson, director of IT for Zumiez, Inc., went completely diskless in his Exchange server environment thanks to his SAN and a product called BladeMail, which hosts Exchange on diskless IBM blades and the Exchange store on IBM-rebranded NetApp SAN storage, all of which is managed and integrated by Azaleos.

"BladeMail fits really well into our recent investments, specifically our decision to make all our servers blades," Hudson said. Zumiez, a skateboarding and snowboarding retailer, and one of the first beta testers for BladeMail, chose to go with blades because they save on space and power.

"We were adding servers at such a good clip that we were running out of floor space and capacity on our uniterruptible power supply (UPS)," Hudson said. "We can add blades and power modules to an enclosure much faster and cheaper than standalone servers."

It was also primarily power concerns that prompted the company to move Exchange to the SAN -- the default deployment of Exchange so far is DAS on a standalone server, with a limit of up to 200 users on a single instance of the utility in the 2003 version. "When you have 10 or 15 servers, DAS is okay," Hudson said. "When you get into 20 to 35 servers, it's a lot of disks spinning, generating heat and sucking more power."

The consolidation also made his mail and storage admins' lives easier, since Exchange "is now more a part of our business data," he said, replicated, backed up and managed on one system "with one policy and usually just one person."

It may never be a simple application to manage: "Email grows faster than your average file system storage," Hudson said. "It's trickier to backup and retention policies for it are more complex." But, he said, collapsing several Exchange servers down into one SAN system is a step in the right direction.

Jim Hanrahan, a computer technician and trainer in the office of information services at the Kenosha Unified School District in northern Illinois, left some disks on his server but also migrated 3500 Exchange mailboxes (200 gigabytes (GB) in all) of faculty email to a Compellent SAN earlier this year.

Even with local disk remaining in the server, Hanrahan said, it can be freed up to host the Exchange application's page file and system files rather than mailbox contents. This in turn means the full resources of his dual Pentium 4 Xeon processor servers can be used to keep the application running rather than straining under the load of message content. Hanrahan said he plans to reconfigure the seven drives in his two Exchange servers into a new RAID configuration with a mirrored pair for system files, another for trans logs and the remaining 3 in RAID for the page file.

Hanrahan said the migration didn't take long -- about 20 to 25 minutes for each 100 GB database once he set up the LUNs on the Compellent' SAN.

Having the Exchange store on the SAN will also help with restore times -- a common bugaboo for Exchange -- without the added expense of a third-party archive, Hanrahan said. His plan is to use Compellent's snapshot capability -- called Data Instant Replay -- to mount the Exchange store to a test server for recovery at the message level, a much quicker process than sifting through the entire database to restore one message.

"For us, it's all about the performance," said Bill Augustadt, CTO of Application Managed Services, ACS, Inc., which manages IT for blue-chip companies like Disney, NBC and Nike, and stores a total of close to 3 petabytes (PB) of data between its internal IT and the IT it manages for clients.

In the internal environment, according to Augustadt, the Exchange store for 38,000 users has been moved to a Hitachi 9960 array. This SAN array also holds file data.

"After 30 milliseconds, a bubble pops up on a user's screen saying 'waiting for network'," Augustadt said. "The only way to avoid that is to spread the Exchange data over more spindles, and the only way to do that with as many users as we have, is to put it on a SAN array."

Putting the Exchange store on the SAN has also helped with management; using SANtricity and SAN Navigator software to manage everything connected with the SAN saves time and headaches, he said, and helps with administration functions like identifying hot spots on disk.

"We have different versions of disk connected to different servers," he said. "We can look at them better using a SAN-based tool than a server-based tool."

Is the SAN solution the wave of the future? Or, will a better mousetrap from Microsoft make it a short-term solution? Check out part 2 of this story: Exchange 2007 storage enhancements: Cure-all or Band-Aid?

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