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Virtualized storage makes prepress an express

In the land of the truly jumbo files, Krug Litho Art has some of the most jumbo. Krug handles prepress, the first step in commercial printing jobs, for catalogs, magazines, signs and ads. The catalogs it prepares for printing may be 300 to 400 pages with file sizes that are often as large as a gigabyte. Biggest of all are the large format posters Krug gets ready for printing on 60-inch plotters.

Krug's customer files typically come into the shop on disk media. The prepress production operator uses the workstation to copy it to the file server and works on it from there. Any ancillary files created during the prepress process get stored on the file server as well. To be productive, Krug's 20 prepress production operators need to get these humongous files off their workstations and onto the file server fast. But up until recently, it just wasn't working. Some of the monster files took hours to process. It was not a pretty picture.

Disk space was a constant issue. The company's file server only had two 120G byte RAID volumes. "If we ran over that," says Keith Stanley, Krug's director of technology, "we had to start deleting stuff." The file server went down nearly every month, and even when it was up, Krug's staff had to be constantly aware of where the physical data resided.

Stanley knew things had to change. Krug is somewhat unusual in the printing industry in that it even has a director of technology. Stanley began running tests and

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creating benchmarks against which he could evaluate the potential benefits of a storage area network (SAN). "It was difficult to explain to the company's owners that, by buying new computer equipment and spending all this money on support products, we could make more money. When I started throwing the numbers at them, they started to take a closer look."

When he'd done his homework, Stanley called Pat Taylor of Proactive Technologies, an IT integrator that specializes in the graphics arts industry. Taylor recommended SANSymphony, a management product from DataCore Software Corp. that would handle virtualization and automated backups.

Virtualized storage enables storage space on disparate devices to be managed and used as a single volume. It helps businesses like Krug get the most out of the hardware they already have. "Because you have a single storage pool that all servers can attach to," Taylor explains, "you don't have to buy gateway servers. Instead, you distribute processing onto [less expensive] machines that can be re-purposed in two years. [When you're ready to upgrade], you can make the old file server an e-mail server or a honking fast workstation. But what are you going to do with a quad server in two years?"

Stanley had to consider whether SANSymphony's in-band approach to network management -- in which a Fibre Channel switch sits directly in the data path between the server and the disk arrays -- could create a choke point for data. The alternative is out-of-band virtualization, in which software or an intelligent switch sits outside the data path. His philosophy is to let hardware handle as many functions as possible, because it's faster than software. "I was concerned that all this was being managed by software," he says. But Taylor explained that letting software manage the SAN would enable more functions.

Proactive was a trusted vendor, and Stanley had his own benchmarks. In DataCore's tests, he says, "They kicked the [expletive] out of everything that came up against it." If SANSymphony performed as well for him, he'd be golden. Krug's SAN includes a terabyte RAID made up of 15 disks running at 10,000 rpm, all serving up data to four servers. The company spent about $150,000 for the whole shebang: hardware, software licenses, services, even the equipment racks. Figuring out the return on investment in the graphics industry is pretty straightforward. Getting jobs done faster means doing more jobs per day with the same hardware and staff. Pre-SAN, data flowed from the file server to a workstation at about 260M bytes/minute. That nearly doubled with the DataCore product; the same 100 base-T Ethernet connection now pumps data down at around 475M bytes/minute, an increase of about 83%. Overall, Stanley says he's seen a 300% increase in speed. "What used to take an eight-hour shift now happens in about two hours," he says.

"Retrieval is a snap," Stanley says. At 4:30 each morning, SANSymphony checks every volume and mirrors anything that's changed to the backup server. (Krug also saves all completed jobs on digital linear tape.) "Because it's mirrored, all data is current. I just have to copy a file back to the file server, and I'm done," he says. Should the whole system ever crash, Stanley could simply point the network to the backup file server and all the data would be available to customers and staff. "We have almost 100% guaranteed uptime," he said.

SANSymphony's administration tools will let Stanley add to the SAN quickly and easily. "Because it's so standard and compatible," he says, "planning for future upgrades is a snap." Meanwhile, with those gigantic graphics files shooting over the Ethernet, Stanley's workload looks like a pretty picture indeed.

For additional information on Krug Litho Art, call (816) 221-1422.

For more information on DataCore visit its Web site.

For more on Proactive Technologies, click  here .

For the full library of Storage Innovator stories, click here.

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This was first published in January 2003

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