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Tech Insight Unified Storage Is Crucial Part of Search and Discovery for the Cloud

New software-defined storage paradigm based on open standards

Global Legal Discovery, an Atlanta, Georgia-based firm that provides electronic discovery services, is riding the wave of a new and exploding market -- storing, retrieving, and searching millions of documents that may be required in the event of an electronic discovery (eDiscovery) request. The efficiency and cost of storing this ever-growing mountain of legal data led Global Legal to find a storage infrastructure that could handle its rapidly expanding volume while still guaranteeing performance and reliability.

Enter Silicon Mechanics, a Seagate Cloud Builder Alliance partner, which is focused on helping customers move to cloud computing without handcuffing them to legacy proprietary hardware. Silicon Mechanics configured a unified storage appliance specifically tailored to meet Global Legal’s needs, using a software-defined storage model at a fraction of the cost of legacy tiered storage.

The unified storage appliance, called zStax StorCore, gives Global Legal the ability to have both high performance and archive tiers running on the same platform, making it just what Global Legal needed for analyzing large numbers of documents. The zStax StorCore is built on industry-standard hardware, and powered by NexentaStor, an enterprise-level software-defined storage platform based on open-source ZFS technology. In addition, unlike legacy storage systems, with zStax users can move data and replicate it for disaster recovery at no additional cost.

Global Legal implemented the platform with 3.3 terabytes of storage, and has since increased to more than 200 TB, at huge cost savings over most legacy hardware storage products.

Information collection brings storage challenges

Enterprises today collect and store huge amounts of data, and the storage challenge is expected to become more prominent in coming years. According to IDC’s The Digital Universe, in 2020, “From 2005 to 2020, the digital universe will grow by a factor of 300, from 130 exabytes to 40,000 exabytes, or 40 trillion gigabytes (more than 5,200 gigabytes for every man, woman, and child in 2020). From now until 2020, the digital universe will about double every two years.”1

Global Legal Discovery is a case in point, as it delivers web-hosted document review and storage solutions to a wide range of customers, including top national law firms, Fortune-500 companies, and even small start-ups. Their legal sector clients are well aware of the need to both retain data and access it efficiently. Search and discovery presents a unique challenge for law firms, as compliance provisions require paperwork to be stored for extended periods of time.

Sheer volume was not the only problem Global Legal had to address -- it also had to be able to help its clients use their vast collections. In addition to requiring data storage and access, Global’s clients depend on rapid transfer, processing, analysis, conversion, indexing, and search of this information with web remote access. Further, the nature of litigation and client workflows make for frequent unpredictability and surprises. A highly available, low latency environment is critical for data to be highly accessible by multiple applications simultaneously across all projects. The efficiency of these processes and the cost of storing data can dramatically affect the expenses enterprises encounter when faced with litigation or internal inquiries.

Global Legal leverages tiered storage

Meeting document storage compliance requirements has become an efficiency and cost nightmare, and Jonathan Gudger, program manager for Global Legal, explained that there were three core needs that guided the company’s search for an infrastructure solution:

  • Efficient storage for long-term archival data
  • High performance for the company’s active environments
  • Highly available infrastructure

Global Legal spent approximately six months in the vendor selection process. The company eventually turned to Silicon Mechanics, a Seagate Cloud Builder Alliance partner. One of the factors that made Silicon Mechanics the best option is that its zStax family of storage appliances is powered by NexentaStor, a software-defined storage solution that does not require the use of specific proprietary drives and other hardware. This not only reduces total cost of ownership but has a positive impact on long-term performance and scalability.

The solution uses a tiered storage environment, which allows businesses to classify data and store it according to different performance and reliability needs. High-performance and archive tiers run on the same platform. The base system includes support for numerous protocols, including Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI), Common Internet File System (CIFS), and Network File System (NFS).

Gudger explained how his company uses Silicon Mechanics’ solution to manage data that requires high input/output operations per second (IOPS) and throughput, balanced with long-term retention needs. This tiering approach dramatically lowers total cost of ownership.

  • Tier 1 – Seagate Enterprise 15K RPM drives supported by a layer of SSD cache for high-performance, low-latency workloads.
  • Tier 2 – Primarily Seagate Enterprise Capacity 7200 RPM drives in mirrored pairs, which continuously collect data from Tier 1 to provide redundancy. This tier can stand in for Tier 1 in case of a catastrophic event.
  • Tier 3 – High-capacity Seagate Enterprise Capacity drives in dual-parity RAID (redundant array of independent disks) volumes, which provide long-term data retention.

“We believe we’re relying on technologies that our competitors are not, including solid-state cache, 10GB Ethernet, and a ZFS storage pool supported by Seagate hardware,” said Gudger. “These components are part of our secret sauce that allows us to deliver a very high throughput.”

The infrastructure backbone that Global Legal has created with Silicon Mechanics is now an essential component of the value it offers to its customers. Gudger estimated that this IT environment is now linked directly to more than a third of the company’s revenue.

Decoupling software from underlying hardware is key to storage model

Steve Scherer, solutions manager for Silicon Mechanics, explains that zStax is built on NexentaStor’s software-defined storage architecture, a radical departure that decouples software from its underlying hardware. With the traditional storage model, legacy vendors develop storage software themselves but deploy it on proprietary hardware.

“By decoupling the storage software from the hardware, we can deploy enterprise-grade software on industry-standard hardware,” Scherer said. “The end user is not locked into any particular hardware platform. It’s a new paradigm, and it’s all based on open standards.” Leveraging software-defined storage to avoid vendor lock-in can save customers like Global Legal up to 80 percent over proprietary legacy solutions.

Scherer explained that reduced cost is not the only benefit to this model. By using software-defined storage, the customer can decide when to deploy new hardware: Adding capacity or upgrading to next-generation hardware can be determined by the customer’s needs, not the vendor’s roadmap.

While many legacy vendors deploy hardware platforms that are generations behind, using the open philosophy allows Silicon Mechanics to quickly leverage the best the industry has to offer. Silicon Mechanics has already deployed many Seagate Enterprise SSDs as well as Seagate Enterprise Performance 15K drives to build out this tiered infrastructure and will continue to rely on Seagate technology to ensure cutting edge performance in future.

A breadth of expertise for implementation and support

The infrastructure backbone that provides the foundation for cloud services is a critical part of any deployment, but optimizing investment in the technology requires effective implementation and support. One of the reasons this deployment has been so successful is that Global Legal has been able to leverage a deep pool of expertise to help align its unique IT-centric needs with its desired business outcomes. Rather than overspend on hardware, the company was able to right-size its solution, while allowing for a high level of scalability.

In fact, Global Legal’s initial deployment was close to 3TB in total capacity and has since expanded to more than 200TB across multiple platforms. The total cost of ownership of a similar system using proprietary solutions would have been significantly higher due to the number of architecture upgrades that would have been required. Because Global Legal went with a solution built on open standards, it has been able to scale cost effectively without making sacrifices in such other key areas as reliability and performance.

While companies may migrate assets to the cloud for any number of reasons, the common theme emerging from different deployments is that the “one-size-fits-all” approach no longer meets the needs of modern businesses. Silicon Mechanics addresses these varied market demands through the development of its tiered storage system as well as by leveraging technology and expertise from the Seagate Cloud Builder Alliance. As a world leader in hard disk drives and storage solutions, Seagate offers a great variety of enterprise-grade hard-disk, solid-state, and hybrid storage technologies, so businesses like Global Legal can customize their infrastructures based on their unique capacity and performance needs.

“Right from the beginning we wanted to go after highly available back-end storage for virtualization and Seagate met the challenge of providing Tier 1 storage,” said Scherer. As a Seagate Cloud Builder Alliance partner, Silicon Mechanics gains access to the latest drives as well as help in determining which storage devices will provide the most value for its customers. This allows the company to take a business need, use its own industry expertise to determine compute and storage requirements, and leverage Seagate’s expertise to translate those requirements into the best devices for every new project.

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