700,000 reasons to implement object storage in a research environment

Research IT influencer achieves big gains by thinking outside the box

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As the director of scientific computing for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Dirk Petersen, and industry acquaintance of mine, needs his internal IT organization to store and catalogue large amounts of unstructured and genomic data, all of which is critical to his organization and its many constituents. A data loss caused by server or storage hardware failure would be problematic for his organization and its researchers at best, and catastrophic at worst.

Petersen’s IT team is given a limited budget each year to purchase and maintain its researchers’ storage systems, making it difficult to afford the inherent costs and overhead associated with the classic storage manufacturers. And not just hard costs. These storage platform purchases, in my opinion, can require significant up-front investment, hinder the ability to mix and match solutions along the way and force an organization’s IT team to conduct dreaded forklift upgrades that drain resources.

So when it came time to implement a new storage system, in part to meet the demands created by the recent explosion in genomic sequencing, but also to meet the growing IT needs of Fred Hutch’s 2,000-plus researchers, Petersen was in a seemingly difficult spot. The chosen system would need to satisfy the finance department, IT department and researchers’ desire for a cost-effective solution that was also reliable, scalable and customizable.

“Our goal was to create a scalable storage hardware infrastructure while keeping upfront costs low,” says Petersen. “This was extremely important because like most finance departments, ours does not enjoy surprises. And it was equally important that we have the flexibility for incremental growth -- with the use of genomic data sets continuing to surge, a majority of our future infrastructure costs will be storage related. Maintaining control over the system infrastructure, affording us the ability to add or subtract pieces as necessary, is critical to remaining nimble.”

Petersen approached the myriad possible solutions from a scientists’ perspective: researching the problem, talking to his peers, working with professional product testers and doing significant in-house testing. He considered various options, including open source, distributed file systems, fully integrated and commercial hierarchal storage management solutions and commercial object storage vendors. None of the above, however, could meet Petersen’s cost, maintainability and access requirements.


Ultimately, he decided that a Swift implementation made the most sense. What is Swift? The OpenStack Object Store Project, better known in the technology industry as Swift, offers cloud storage software that allows users to store and retrieve large volumes of data with a simple API. It is also compatible with the S3 API, which means users can have an Amazon S3 in their own data center at 40 percent of the cost and are not be constrained by Internet latency.

Swift was built to help large organizations; it is optimized for durability, availability and concurrency across an entire data set. And in meeting Petersen’s needs even further, Swift offers an ideal platform for storing unstructured data in addition to genomic sequencing data. Unstructured data, which includes mostly text, but also rich media, currently has a growth curve substantially greater than that of structured data.

To implement the new Swift platform, Petersen evaluated an object-oriented storage solution with x86 industry standard hardware. In doing so, Petersen completely bypassed the original equipment manufacturers that have dominated the enterprise storage market for the past two decades, and put together a system that not only performs its duty in storing valuable data, but also provides his organization tremendous savings in terms of money, resources and downtime.

Says Petersen, “I’m bucking old school buying trends. In the IT world it used to be common knowledge that you wanted to avoid the road less travelled, but that is quickly changing. I think this trend is evident to others as well, because the x86 Integrated Solution providers -- are now increasing market share while the OEMs like IBM, HP and Dell are losing theirs. The value of a good system integrator toolbox of solution offerings to an IT organization like mine is that they offer variety -- I like to compare the OEM’s to a static Playmobil set, where my system integrator offers more of an interchangeable collection of LEGO blocks.”

Petersen’s Swift implementation has thus far kept his organization’s data secure and the finance department happy. In fact, it has been so successful that he has been invited on multiple occasions to present the benefits of the architecture to industry conferences such as Bio-IT World, most recently at its April 2015 event. But the most revealing implementation result shows on the faces of the IT staffers in the operations department.

“Smiles, all around,” he says. “And now they look very confident too.”   

Since implementing Swift to store more than 300 TB of his organization’s 1PB-plus of data, Petersen’s group at Fred Hutchinson is now spending a mere $4,000 per month in an era when storage costs are skyrocketing. Just on storage costs alone, he is saving his organization hundreds of thousands of dollars per year versus the next cheapest alternative.

Compared with other storage solutions, Petersen’s evaluation proved that the object-oriented storage option was 76 percent cheaper per terabyte per month than NAS, 60 percent cheaper per terabyte per month than Amazon and 56 percent cheaper per terabyte per month than Google.

“In the first 4 months the new system grew by 300TB,” says Petersen. “This alone saved us $700,000 compared to using an Enterprise NAS system.”

This implementation, which I’ve monitored from the sidelines, is very intriguing to me personally as an alternative for the research IT world, but in many other use cases as well. As OpenStack and Swift continue to grow in maturity, there will continue to be more and more "Peterson’s" who, in my opinion, blaze a trail in the research industry by implementing a cloud-based, object storage system. Not only is he challenging the norm, but he is providing his peers a blueprint of a storage implementation that performs on par with the industry standard’s, but costs far less in terms of money, resources and headaches.

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