IBM i Storage: Think Outside the Box

June 27, 2016

IBM i users have grown accustomed to the convenience and performance of a homogenized storage environment. After all, who better to supply the disks tied to Power Systems servers than IBM engineers themselves? With the introduction of the POWER7 series, however, customers now have some interesting new options to investigate.

The new server line features support for external disk units, clearing the path for advanced storage area network (SAN) strategies. As a result, the conversation has shifted to what benefits may be gained from the establishment of a mixed storage environment—as well as what could be lost as administrators venture outside the IBM ecosystem. Answers will naturally vary between businesses, but the questions must be asked as companies draw their long-term IT road maps.

Emerging Data Center Realities

The day-to-day tasks overseen by IBM i users may look as familiar as ever, but a number of disruptive forces are converging on the data center environment. The initial issues to be faced are a matter of scope.

For example, buzz surrounding big data has been unavoidable in IT circles, and while the ratio of hype to substance contained in these conversations can be debated, some facts cannot. According to market researchers from IDC, the digital universe will expand to encompass 40 zettabytes of data by 2020. As individual companies start to work "petabyte" and "exabyte" into their operational vocabularies, a number of conventional concepts and legacy solutions may bend or break.

What's more, the influx of data will also be paralleled by a rising appetite for analytics. Cost and reliability will no longer be the primary criteria for storage success, and performance metrics will emerge with added dimension. As companies come to see data as a strategic asset rather than an operational by-product, round-the-clock availability and real-time access will become crucial capabilities.

Finally, it is important to remember that this data will be streaming in from a wider variety of sources as well. With social media applications increasingly being seen as core business utilities, the unstructured data they generate could introduce several new complexities. Still further out on the innovation arc, machine-to-machine data transfers will also carry their own set of unique consequences that companies must adequately prepare for.

How External Disks Answer the Call 

By graduating from traditional server stacks to SANs, companies can inject some much needed speed and flexibility into operations. With external disk arrays presented as locally attached storage, communication patterns stay fast and simple even as more components are added to the mix to support new ambitions.

The most immediate advantage will be one of intelligent allocation. As information archives continue to expand in exponential fashion, companies will have to judiciously categorize and distribute their storage assets accordingly. Luckily, with a well-designed SAN in place, what is far can still feel near. As a result, administrators can offload redundant or non-essential data from primary servers and migrate it out to separate storage appliances without fearing a failed or sluggish restore if and when it is needed again. At the same time, performance is then boosted in the now-leaner central servers.

These benefits can be extended even further, however, as companies begin to tap PowerVM capabilities to virtualize and dynamically distribute their storage assets. IBM i users can now even manipulate live partitions for flexible orchestration on-demand.

Functionally speaking, these results can really shine through during server maintenance periods. Instead of shutting down an entire server hosting one troubled application, the program in question can be migrated out to a separate SAN endpoint where it can be diagnosed and patched in isolation with minimal operational impact. Alternatively, a new server could be virtually provisioned to take mission-critical applications off a potentially infected server without significant disruption to the end user or long-term risk to the utilities.

Simply put, the new brand of storage asset allocation unlocked by a mixed storage environment empowers administrators to boost utilization rates, cut costs and dynamically allocate data and apps as they see fit.

Factors for Consideration

Before IBM i users embark on a new storage strategy or resolve to maintain their current operational framework, there are several questions that must be asked. As with any IT architecture adjustment, a thorough cost-benefit analysis will need to be conducted.

Procuring new storage appliances will require upfront investment, but the key consideration is how it appreciates over time. If companies are in such a position that they need to see immediate returns, few – if any - vendors could promise those results in good faith. However, the long-term advantages of a consolidated storage footprint, faster access, easier oversight and improved disaster recovery capabilities will likely do much more than simply repay the principle. At the same time, the human factors of systemic change can carry their own costs as well in the form of in-house training and potential new recruitment.

Another leading consideration should be the impact of welcoming a new product vendor into the corporate IT ecosystem. Companies such as EMC and Dell are no doubt qualified to offer robust, reliable and compatible storage solutions, but going outside the IBM customer support environment for the first time can give some administrators pause.

At the same time, decision makers must be sure to distinguish the difference between a justified business case and simple organizational inertia. If the projected advantages are significant enough, a personal distaste for change should not be allowed to hold back potentially transformative progress. Just because a storage environment grows more diverse does not imply it will automatically become more difficult to oversee as well.

IBM i users are traditionally accustomed to a more measured model of incremental evolution in their data centers, but the support for external disk suppliers in POWER7 servers offers a glimpse at transformative change.

By embracing a mixed storage strategy, the promise of cost control, simplified management and dynamic performance all appear on the horizon. Nevertheless, such fundamental changes to the IBM i environment require careful forethought and decisions supported by clear business cases and detailed support frameworks. It also requires complimentary strategies for avoiding the sluggish performance—or worse, exceeded thresholds and IPL—that comes from exploding disk space.


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