TwinStrata CloudArray helps consolidate primary, backup storage

Although EMC looks to TwinStrata technology to turn the cloud into a storage tier from inside a SAN, one customer proves CloudArray has value without a separate SAN for primary, backup and disaster recovery storage.

EMC acquired TwinStrata this month with plans to turn the cloud into a storage tier within its SAN arrays.

But at least one customer already uses its TwinStrata CloudArray storage controllers for more than one tier without the need for a separate SAN.

Fuel cell manufacturer Plug Power Inc. replaced a SAN and a tape backup library with TwinStrata CloudArrays.

Latham, New York-based Plug Power makes hydrogen fuel cells that replace batteries in industrial forklifts. Its customers are primarily large distribution warehouses, typically with fleets of 50 to 100 lift trucks. Plug Power's system stores metrics on its customers' fleets, including live and historical data.

For example, when a vehicle is refueled, a communications cable downloads data about the truck and transmits it to Plug Power's database. Plug Power engineers collate the data and present it to customers, including metrics such as hydrogen gas use, number of orders, uptime for the vehicle, maintenance and other operational details.

That data provides customers with a way to gauge their return on investment, said John Nolan, manager of information systems at Plug Power.

"As we start turning on more and more customer sites, we are collecting significantly more data. The data is vital in helping them determine the value of our business," Nolan said.

TwinStrata sells CloudArray as hardware or as a virtual appliance. The physical boxes include the 1U P100 and the 2U P200 running TwinStrata CloudArray software. The devices present cloud storage as a mounted volume and support both iSCSI SANs and NAS.

Plug Power started with a 6 terabyte (TB) P100 two years ago that pointed to a 12 TB cloud repository, the volume of which could expand with thin provisioning. Plug Power initially ran the P100 as a trial for backups, but eventually needed a higher capacity appliance.

In late 2013, Plug Power installed a P200 CloudArray 2U appliance with 15 TB of on-site primary cache that points to unlimited storage in Google Cloud Services. The move enabled the company to retire most of its tape and adapt the P100 box as a redundant backup target for disaster recovery.

Storage constraints prompt upgrade

Nolan said he needed to increase storage capacity both locally and in the cloud. Plug Power had used an EqualLogic SAN for primary storage for years -- implemented before Dell's purchase of EqualLogic in 2007.

While Plug Power needed a storage system with greater capacity, it also needed to fit a limited budget.

"We hadn't shopped for a new storage system in years. We wanted to keep the number below $40,000, if possible," Nolan said.

Plug Power vetted a proposal by Dell EqualLogic to upgrade the existing in-house SAN. It also considered buying storage from EMC as well as hybrid systems from flash vendor Nimble Storage.

Nolan also solicited feedback from peers, and one contact suggesting he look into TwinStrata. Nolan visited TwinStrata's offices in Natick, Massachusetts, for a first-hand look at its storage technologies.

"The thing we liked about TwinStrata was its cloud offering. We could take the same box used for local storage and synchronize it with whatever cloud storage provider we wanted," Nolan said.

After acquiring the P200 CloudArray, Nolan said he began migrating approximately 9 TB of production data off his SAN. Computer-aided design (CAD) engineering software consumes a heavy share of Plug Power's storage, with roughly 4 TB of active data that changes daily. Plug Power's CAD documents contain blueprints and engineering files used to manufacture the fuel cells.

Nolan said 40% of the P200 capacity is used for production data and 60% consists of backup and legacy files that require long-term storage.

Because TwinStrata devices can be configured to work with most leading public cloud providers, Nolan said he can shop around for competitive pricing. Plug Power pays a flat monthly fee for Google Cloud Services for up to 15 TB of replication, with an upcharge for every 1 TB over that amount.

"If another cloud provider comes along offering a better price point with more storage, all I have to do is a quick reconfiguration on the back end of my box. That flexibility is pretty big for us, since we're a fairly small-to-midsized company" of about 200 employees, Nolan said.

Boosting backup and DR

Plug Power used to have seven locations and would replicate data across the sites for redundancy, backup and disaster recovery. In recent years, however, the company has shuttered six sites and consolidated global operations at its Latham headquarters. Before switching to TwinStrata, daily backups were written disk to disk from file servers and dumped each month onto offsite tape.

Plug Power still keeps a small number of tapes available for backup, restore and archiving, but disaster recovery and backup now is provided mainly by the 1U CloudArray it bought two years ago. The device has been installed at a remote site about one mile from Plug Power's corporate office as part of an ad hoc disaster recovery strategy that Nolan said provides performance improvements over tape.

"We have the second box as backup so if (the P200) should fail, we can be up and running in half an hour," Nolan said.

Next Steps

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