Although storage area network (SAN) technology has been around for several years, it's been mainly limited to big-budget IT operations, due to cost and complexity.However, the economics of SANs have been changing, thanks to more robust management tools, as well as the fact that SANs can now be deployed without expensive fibre channel technology.

Now, insurance organizations are rolling out SANs based on both high-speed fibre channel infrastructures, as well as slower, but cheaper, IP-based networks. And, in the not-too-distant future, storage management itself may be abstracted in a virtualization layer that encompasses all storage devices and platforms across the enterprise.

Technology approaches may differ, but insurance tech experts view such storage management approaches as the most effective way of getting their arms around rapidly proliferating data requirements. According to Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass., SANs, in one form or another, have been adopted at about 72% of larger enterprises-up from 42% just two years ago.

"It makes more sense for us at this point to centralize on SANs to provide a universal data 'dial tone' across our business," says Kurt Bertelsen, director of distributed computing at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Eagan, Minn.

The centralized storage administration that SANs provide comes with compelling benefits. For example, consolidating hardware resources into a SAN environment can simplify storage management, increase storage utilization, and increase application and data availability.

The stakes are high for many insurers, as industry experts estimate that up to 30% of system downtime is a direct result of storage failures. Properly implemented SAN architectures are capable of providing almost 100% data availability.

Control your data better

Along with financial and availability benefits, SANs also "give you the opportunity to control your data better," says Scott Drummond, SAN expert with IBM Corp, Armonk, N.Y.

"When you move to a SAN, you move data away from inconsistent treatment from different system administrators and end users. By centralizing the people, policies, procedures and practices around storage, you're able to take the business' desires about how to treat the data, and apply it consistently across all the enterprise," he says.

For insurance carriers with growing stores of image-intensive files, a more disciplined approach to storage management is needed.

"You have a lot of agents out in the field. They all have personal computers. They all have digital cameras. They're filing lots of claims forms. They're filing lots of digital photos, which are, of course, increasing data capacity tremendously," says Derek Weeks, senior marketing manager for StorageTek, Louisville, Colo.

The bottom-line function of SANs is "all about sharing data-and moving from dealing with physical data to a logical tier of data," says John McArthur, analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm.

"If I've got a SAN file system, everyone has a copy of the same data-one physical copy of the data, three logical copies of the data. What you get when you have that is reduced data duplication," he explains.

"How many copies of a single PowerPoint presentation are scattered around your organization, consuming space?" he asks. "SAN file systems eliminate much of the need to duplicate data just because you have different applications or different users who want to access that same piece of information."

The need to eliminate data duplication is precisely what's driving the current SAN deployment at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.

"Our data philosophy is a triangle, with three different points: our transactional world, which includes claims; our interactive world, which interfaces with our stakeholders, customers and clients; and our analytic environment," says Bertelsen. "Our methodology is centered around the fact that there should be one piece of data around a claim."

Currently, Blue Cross maintains a total of 30 terabytes of data across several departmental-level SANs, which are supported by a range of disk arrays and tape libraries from Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC Corp., IBM, StorageTek, and Fujitsu. The company is in the process of migrating its entire storage infrastructure to a fibre channel-based enterprise-wide SAN, administered by an EMC Control Suite.

Bertelsen expects the company's data storage requirements to grow by at least 10% over the next year, especially since the company is adding more analytical capabilities.

"Our data needs will keep growing at an accelerating clip as we start to do more analytics," he says. "The SAN is going to help us, because we're going to be able to centrally store the data, so we don't have to duplicate it. If we didn't centralize, we would see more than 20% data growth next year, because we would have to duplicate the storage in the different environments in order to get the access and connectivity we need.

Bertelsen says his department has not encountered any vexing technical issues, mainly because the company had experience rolling out a series of smaller SANs. "We haven't had a lot of complexity yet, but our biggest challenges are going to be ahead of us as we start integrating them into the enterprise SAN," he says.

In many cases, managing an enterprise-level SAN calls for an unusually large deployment of cross-organizational resources, experts note.

"Deploying SANs is not a technology project, it's an organizational project," says Richard Scannell, president of GlassHouse Technologies Inc., a Framingham, Mass.-based firm. "The Achilles heel for many organizations is treating SAN management as just a technical issue."

For starters, Scannell recommends that SAN deployment and management be brought under the aegis of a dedicated manager and staff.

"We recommend that customers in large environments-10 to 15 terabytes and above-look at storage management as a discipline in and of itself. It's more than a part-time job," he says.

In many cases, SAN management may fall under the purview of network administration rather than server administration. For example, Mid-Continent Casualty Insurance Co., Tulsa, Okla., turned over its SAN management to network administrators, reports Jim Headrick, vice president of Total Data Services Inc., a Cumming, Ga.-based company that built and deployed the company's SAN.

A network task

Blue Cross' Bertelsen also points out that his company found SAN management to be a network-oriented task.

"We've run networks for a long time, but we forgot that a SAN is just a network again," he says. We found the same philosophies we used for monitoring IP networks could be used for monitoring SANs. But servers react one way to direct-attached storage, and they react another way to an IP network."

Perhaps the most revolutionary upheaval taking place on the storage management horizon is the rise of IP SANs, which enable companies to use their current Ethernet-IP network to get the benefits of a SAN without the costs of a fibre channel network.

According to industry experts, the price of an IP SAN-while still more than direct-attached storage-can be less than one-third the cost of fibre channel. Although it's slower, the IP SAN can provide for the needs of many organizations.

The low cost of a SAN deployment over IP technology is enabling some organizations that would not consider more expensive types of networks. Such is the case at LifeCare Assurance Co., Woodland Hills, Calif., which was wrestling with ways to back up its network of 36 Windows 2000 servers.

"Like everybody else, we had storage problems," says Mike Wolf, manager of technical services for LifeCare Assurance.

"Direct-attached storage is widely dispersed, and it's difficult to administer," he notes. "Even day-to-day maintenance can be a chore. You have to have drive, hardware or application monitoring-or you have to view individual event logs just to keep track of the health of your direct-attached storage.

"With SAN solutions, storage is all in one place, so you can manage that data storage much more effectively," he adds. At the backbone of its IP SAN, LifeCare Assurance uses a storage concentrator from StoneFly Networks, San Diego.

Despite the lower cost of IP SANs, industry observers don't foresee a wholesale replacing of fibre channel technology any time soon.

"IP won't replace fibre channel at all," says GlassHouse Technologies' Scannel. Storage networks will be tiered, with more mission-critical and time-sensitive applications getting more expensive technology, he predicts.

Joe McKendrick is a freelance writer based in Doylestown, Pa.

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