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Cloud-Based StorSimple Reduces Expenses and Minimizes Risk

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Published July 2014

Securely storing and maintaining data is one of the most important choices an organization can make; finding the right method and location for that storage can make or break a company.  If you’ve ever lost data because of a malfunction, you know how painful this loss can be.  Multiplied across an organization—with the potential to lose precious intellectual property—that sort of loss can prove catastrophic for a business.  Storage, backup, and recovery in the cloud mitigates risks associated with file archiving, as well as saving organizations significant operational and capital expense compared to the use of traditional backup methods. Plus, StorSimple provides an intelligent storage-management logic with which to store files locally or in the cloud, based on each file's usage frequency. To test this ability in a production environment, Microsoft IT built a StorSimple solution for a typical workload, and realized 44 percent operational savings.

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Executive Overview

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Microsoft acquired StorSimple in 2012, and decided to test the capabilities of the technology's latest product (Microsoft Azure StorSimple 8000 Series) current in partnership with an internal group in a production environmen The Client Data Services Management (CDSM) team provided an ideal differentiated workload for StorSimple; small numbers of files that users access regularly combined with a much larger number of files that users access only occasionally (if at all). StorSimple, a hardware- and software-based storage framework, supplies logic that treats each file differently, based on the frequency with which users access it, and then routes and ages files through a succession of storage locations. These locations begin with local solid-state drives for ready read/write access, and end with archive storage in Microsoft Azure. Furthermore, StorSimple uses snapshots to maintain full cloud-based copies of all files on a virtual-machine server. These capabilities obviate the need for traditional backup methods, resulting in significant savings and faster ability to provide storage and maintenance to the teams that Microsoft IT serves.

Introduction

Like many enterprises, Microsoft uses a large and complex storage ecosystem as part of its IT environment. The multitude of departments, business units, development centers, labs, and marketing services across the company generates a high volume of files. Users access or modify a percentage of those files daily, but many of the files are maintained for mostly occasional-access or archival purposes. The exponential data growth in recent years is seen internally, with many Microsoft departments seeing 20 to 30 percent annual growth in the data they maintain, including file storage.

With complexity comes cost. Each storage environment requires various levels of ongoing service, depending on its usage and criticality characteristics. These services typically include:

  • Allocation: requesting the initial storage property
  • Backup: scheduling regular remote copies of all files for safekeeping
  • Restoration: delivery of backed-up files from the remote location, and
  • Ongoing maintenance: regular and emergency service of the data center servers in which the storage is located.

Teams within Microsoft pay for these services on a dollar-per-gigabyte basis, using allocations from their individual operating and capital budgets.

These costs are considerable, and Microsoft IT always seeks ways to decrease this financial burden for its internal customers. Microsoft IT also believes in strategically testing new technologies that will help streamline its operations, especially storage management services. This was the rationale behind the choice to conduct a cloud-assisted storage pilot based on the StorSimple technology acquired in 2012.

Finding a Test Case for the Pilot

Microsoft IT followed a three-step process to prepare for the pilot. First, it focused on the capabilities and functional requirements of the new StorSimple version. Next, it used these criteria to evaluate workloads within its customer base that were an ideal fit for StorSimple. Microsoft IT then conducted a performance-based analysis of the groups using storage in its IT environment. Using data about each group's storage patterns, Microsoft IT sought a test case for the pilot. The ideal parameters were that a majority of a group's files were seldom accessed—including archives and many user-generated files--while a small number were accessed on a regular basis.

The CDSM team located within Microsoft IT fit this profile, a group who manages data backups, file synchronization, and file sharing for Microsoft users and business groups. CDSM uses Windows file servers, various storage technologies, and SharePoint for its services.

Microsoft IT began initial pilot research in February 2013, and then rolled out the pilot in November 2013.

Testing a Differentiated Workload

The storage that CDSM manages fits a high capacity, low touch profile, which means that users access most of the files it stores only occasionally, while they access a small percentage of files daily. This usage resembles the overall pattern seen across Microsoft IT, as the following graphic shows.

Figure 1. Differentiated storage workload based on frequency of file access
Figure 1. Differentiated storage workload based on frequency of file access

Therefore, CDSM was an ideal fit for using the StorSimple solution, and this was key to Microsoft IT deciding to include CDSM in the pilot. As the following Solution section describes, StorSimple is optimized for environments that have data requirements that fit the CDSM profile.

Other important factors that lead to the decision to implement the CDSM pilot included:

  • Service level expectations: Because this was a pilot involving developing technology for use in a production environment, Microsoft IT was careful not to select a team whose data required a high level of availability.
  • Network compatibility. As with any cloud-based solution, sensible implementation requires a sufficient network capacity to allow business performance without slowing other processes. Microsoft IT was in the process of revising its network design based on new cloud-based traffic flows, so it did not implement the pilot in regional sites with low bandwidth capacity.

Solution

Prior to implementing the pilot solution, CDSM utilized storage area network (SAN) technologies on its file server, and traditional methods for storing backup copies of all data on SAN servers that are separated geographically. For the pilot implementation, Microsoft IT replaced this configuration with a StorSimple solution, as the following graphic shows:

Figure 2. The CDSM StorSimple solution stores and ages files to local, attached, and cloud-based locations
Figure 2. The CDSM StorSimple solution stores and ages files to local, attached, and cloud-based locations

The solution uses a single StorSimple appliance to manage the pilot workload files in the Microsoft production environment. These devices are accessible to Azure services by using the Azure management portal via the Microsoft corporate network.

The CDSM pilot solution showcases the following StorSimple capabilities:

  • Data tiering. The solution's main impact is its use of StorSimple data-tiering technology. Data tiering is the ability to treat file sets differently based on the frequency with which users access files. By analyzing each file's properties, StorSimple determines when the file was last accessed, and ages the file by automatically storing it in an appropriate location. StorSimple performs ongoing analysis on all file sets to determine the most efficient storage allocation at any given time, as the following graphic shows:

    Figure 3. StorSimple logic applied to differentiated CDSM workload
    Figure 3. StorSimple logic applied to differentiated CDSM workload

    StorSimple stores files that users access frequently on rewritable, flash-based, solid-state drives (SSD) within the StorSimple appliance. It stores files that require intermittent access on Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) drives that connect to StorSimple in the Microsoft IT data center. Lastly, it compresses the largest portion of files--those requiring archival access only--and sends them over the network to a cloud-based storage location in Microsoft Azure.
  • Block-level de-duplication and compression. Files stored on file servers, unlike databases, can be split safely into individual 512-byte blocks. The StorSimple solution tracks the names of file properties, but performs many of its detailed file operations at the block level. StorSimple uses an algorithm to determine the associations between multiple blocks, and applies key operations accordingly. These key operations include de-duplication, which is the sorting out of extraneous, identical blocks, and compression, which is the reduction of block size to preserve storage capacity.
      
    StorSimple performs these operations prior to sending files to Azure, thereby effectively shrinking both the Azure storage requirements for each file, as well as the bandwidth required to send the file over the corporate network. This, in turn, improves file-restore speed and reduces overall storage costs.
  • Disaster recovery snapshots. StorSimple uses snapshot technology to replace the need for remote file storage to serve disaster-recovery requirements. StorSimple uses snapshots to create a full backup of each file set once daily, and then sends it to Azure, as the following graphic shows. StorSimple updates snapshots continuously with any changes to the file until the next daily snapshot occurs. This means you do not have to store backups on geographically separate SAN servers, because you can recover the file set from Azure any time there is a failure that affects the primary storage location. In disaster-recovery terms, the recovery time objective (the time required to restore from backup) is shorter, and the recovery point objective (the latest point in time when files were current prior to failure) remains the same.

    Figure 4. StorSimple uses local and cloud-based snapshots to provide low-cost backups and full disaster recovery
    Figure 4. StorSimple uses local and cloud-based snapshots to provide low-cost backups and full disaster recovery

Results

In April 2014, Microsoft IT implemented the pilot in its production environment, and final unit and performance testing activities are scheduled for completion by mid-July.

The first row in Table 1 below shows the 44 percent of overall storage cost savings that resulted from the CDSM pilot. Overall storage costs decreased due to the reduced footprint required to store the files. Additionally, costs for traditional backup were eliminated due to the ability to generate and maintain snapshots in Azure. Other rows in the table show projected savings for other sites as CDSM expands its StorSimple implementation to its other data center (primary) and hub (secondary) locations.

Data Center (or Hub)

# of VMs

Storage (in TBs)

Traditional Active Backup (in TBs)

Savings (Actual/Projected)

Pilot:

 

 

 

 

Redmond

30

386

230

44%

Future:

 

 

 

 

Dublin *

14

130

78

39%

Singapore *

6

50

30

36%

Kawaguchi *

8

58

34

38%

Silicon Valley (Hub)

1

24

15

31%

Fargo (Hub)

1

24

15

31%

Hyderabad (Hub) *

3

48

28

38%

Sao Paolo (Hub) *

2

36

22

36%

Beijing (Hub) *

1

36

22

36%

Shanghai (Hub) *

1

36

22

36%

Munich (Hub) *

1

36

22

36%

TOTALS:

 

 

 

 

* Pending legal and regulatory review

Table 1. CDSM actual savings (Redmond) and projected savings using StorSimple

Benefits

The StorSimple CDSM pilot provided several benefits to Microsoft IT, including cost savings, simplified disaster-recovery configuration, and increased agility. The solution also saved time and money by streamlining storage-related Microsoft IT operational processes. CDSM and Microsoft IT anticipate the rate of savings to increase as it adds additional sites to the StorSimple solution (see Table 1).

Here is a breakdown of the benefits that Microsoft IT realized during the CDSM StorSimple pilot implementation:

  • Cost savings: By reducing the overall amount of hardware and services required to meet the team's storage needs, the StorSimple solution reduced the team's monthly storage-related capital and operational expenditures. Savings areas include:
    • Backup and restore operations, resulting from the elimination of traditional tape backups
    • Storage allocation and provisioning savings, resulting from deduplication and compression
    • Consumption, resulting from new pricing based on Microsoft Azure
  • Integrated disaster recovery: The use of Azure-based disaster-recovery snapshots eliminated the burden of provisioning, renting, and maintaining remote servers that were part of the team's traditional backup design.
  • Streamlined operational processes: Previously, the processes CDSM would follow for provisioning new storage (including backups) and restoring from backups were request-based and task-intensive. Additionally, they often required multiple-day service level agreements (SLAs) for each service request. However, the StorSimple pilot made these services available via a self-service, web-based user interface, thereby allowing CDSM to make changes to their own storage configurations.
  • Agile capacity management: StorSimple uses Azure for the majority of its storage allocations, so the CDSM pilot offers elasticity, allowing the team to scale its storage demands easily up or down, as needed, and pay only for the storage it uses. This gives CDSM greater control over its own storage management. Additionally, this allows the team to service its customers' needs more quickly, thereby reducing its own SLAs to the teams that it serves within Microsoft.

Because of the successful StorSimple pilot, Microsoft IT can improve efficiency and continue testing cloud-based backup and restore operations by using the pilot's results, including its findings related to file compression and deduplication. This allows Microsoft IT to lower storage allocations and operations costs among its many file-based workloads.

Resources

StorSimple Product Overview

Microsoft IT Evolves Its Network For Public Cloud Connectivity

For More Information

For more information about Microsoft products or services, call the Microsoft Sales Information Center at (800) 426-9400. In Canada, call the Microsoft Canada Order Centre at (800) 933-4750. Outside the 50 United States and Canada, please contact your local Microsoft subsidiary. To access information via the World Wide Web, go to:

http://www.microsoft.com

http://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-IT

 

© 2014 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Microsoft and Windows are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries. The names of actual companies and products mentioned herein may be the trademarks of their respective owners. This document is for informational purposes only. MICROSOFT MAKES NO WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, IN THIS SUMMARY.

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