While planning a major infrastructure refresh in 2005 PacificSource Health Plans encountered a common problem: how to move thousands of user files from stand-alone legacy servers to a network attached storage (NAS) environment without causing major disruptions. "With a lean infrastructure team of only 10 and many processes running 24/7, we needed a seamless migration," explains Tim Wolfe, the Springfield, Ore.-based carrier's network administrator.
"And we need an equally transparent way to increase storage capacity to accommodate growth," he adds. "The traditional method of shutting down to complete such tasks just wasn't practical anymore."
PacificSource's ($400 million in premium income) technology partners sugested a new technology category called file virtualization, which creates an abstraction layer among file servers, consolidating NAS storage into pools and enabling migrations. Of the handful of solutions in the space, PacificSource focused on Seattle-based F5 Networks' ARX virtualization appliance.
"We saw advantages to ARX's Linux-based architecture, which offered less operational overhead than a Windows-based solution," Wolfe explains. "In addition the ARX was agentless, which meant we wouldn't need to install or maintain agent software on each server that accesses the NAS."
After acquiring a new HP (Palo Alto, Calif.) NAS array and installing the F5 appliance, PacificSource began a three-phase migration in March 2006. "We started with a smaller, non-production server that could be offline for a period of time," Wolfe relates. "This proved wise because the first migration failed due to an older, non-supported version of Windows NT. But our onsite F5 representative recognized the issue, downloaded an agent and restarted the migration in minutes at no additional cost. By the end of the day, Phase One was complete."
A more challenging issue emerged during Phase Two. Architectural redundancies on the legacy servers suggested conflicts could arise if consolidation onto a NAS was attempted, according to Wolfe, but ARX resolved the issue automatically. "So we resumed the migration and it proceeded uneventfully," he reports."
The final implementation phase occurred a year later. "In late 2007 we were running out of storage space," Wolfe recalls. "Unlike the traditional method for adding storage, F5 had promised the ARX would allow for adding more capacity to the pool on-the-fly. In fact it was just that easy. Plus it was completely transparent to end users -- suddenly they just had more storage space."
Today PacificSource uses the F5 solution to establish and maintain a four-tier storage system, in which business-critical files reside on higher-cost, higher-performance disk space and are automatically migrated to lower-performing storage media as demand decreases. "This will maximize our network performance and minimize costs," asserts Wolfe. "Due to the ARX we can now closely match disk performance purchases with our needs."
A disaster recovery role for F5 is also being charted. "We've started planning for a distant replication site," Wolfe says. "As part of that strategy we'll likely use an ARX at each location to replicate information between sites."
In the meantime PacificSource has asked F5 for a few feature enhancements. "We'd like management-friendly enterprise reporting, with graphs and PDFs," says Wolfe. "Currently reporting is manual and text-based. In addition we'd like more task automation, such as verifying that the ARX's metadata is in sync at the front and back end."
Despite his wish list, Wolfe says the ARX surpassed expectations. "With the traditional method, manual migrations would have taken us days of babysitting and required our network to be at least partially down," he says. "At a minimum F5 delivered on its promise for virtualization and file migration. It's even going beyond by playing an important role in our long-term disaster recovery strategy."
case study profile
company: PacificSource Health Plans (Springfield, Ore.; $400 million in premium income).
lines of business: Medical and dental insurance.
vendor/technology: F5 Networks' (Seattle) ARX file storage virtualization appliance.
challenge: Minimize disruption during file migrations and storage capacity upgrades.
Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio