Calor Gas, the UK’s leading supplier of LPG products with 4 million customers, has overhauled its IT storage infrastructure in partnership with B2net, one of the UK’s leading vendor-independent storage integrator and consultancy companies.

Calor Gas is a wholly owned subsidiary of SHV, the largest distributor of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the world. The company's core business is the importation, marketing and distribution of LPG in both bulk and cylinder applications.

Gas storage

Calor knows about gas - propane and LPG and liquified natural gas (LNG) - storage. It's put into large tanks when it first arrives at the company and then put in road tankers for bulk delieries and variously-sized small cylinders for delivery to individual facilities. Propane is propane and LPG is LPG and LNG is LNG. All propane can be kept in propane tanks and all LPG in LPG tanks, etc. Where possible you consolidate the storage to get efficiency gains.

From the early 1970's onwards sales of cabinet heaters, and with them sales of butane in cylinders, escalated enormously, beginning with Super Ser which rapidly replaced the paraffin heater as the nation's number one choice for spot heating. In a decade, the market for cabinet heaters and the gas they burned grew from nothing to £100 million p.a.

This increasing demand for storage space led to Calor investing in larger and larger storage facilities. The first was the purchase in 1976 of a 30,000 tonne refrigerated storage tank at Felixstowe in Suffolk. The second was a joint venture with Conoco to excavate a vast underground cavern on South Humberside, capable of containing some 100,000 tonnes of gas supplied from an adjacent sea terminal. This facility, opened in 1985, gave Calor the ability to overcome short term supply difficulties and to cope with major changes in demand brought on by extremes of weather.

Currently Calor is aiming to redevelop its Canvey Island, Essex, LNG facilities. The project proposal would include the construction of two LNG storage tanks, reinforcement of the existing jetty and a new connection to the National Transmission System which would create a 5.4 billion cubic metre (bcm) LNG import terminal capable of delivering approximately 5 per cent of the UK’s annual gas demand. The aim is to buils two LNG tanks to hold 108,000 tonnes in total and one LPG tank to hold 12,000 tonnes.

Data storage

Calor's gas storage efficiency efforts are now being paralleled by its data storage infrastructure. Previously Calor built up lots and lots of different server and storage silos in the UK. It eventually had ninety servers and associated islands of storage. There were a large number of outmoded, disparate servers where applications were isolated or didn’t sit comfortably alongside one another.

The inefficient infrastructure meant that a lot of time and resource was spent maintaining and supporting out of date servers. It also meant available storage couldn’t match growing demand. Storage administration and backup was consuming more and more resources. It was simply not efficient.

B2net

Calor Gas turned to storage integrator, B2net, to implement a server and storage consolidation programme. B2net implermented a storage area network (SAN) and virtual server technology design. It enabled Calor Gas to significantly simplify and integrate its disparate data storage and back-up requirements, consolidating 50 of its large estate of 90 servers down to just four. It now has a more robust 24/7 storage and data back-up infrastructure in place as well.

Calor Gas’ simplified storage set-up is based on host bus adapters (HBAs), a switched Fibre Channel fabric and a Network Appliance FAS 3020 Cluster Server with serial ATA (SATA) drives. On the server side there are four VMware virtual servers and PlateSpin to convert physical servers connected to virtual storage devices. PlateSpin PowerConvert provides the flexibility to configure and optimize a data center by streaming servers between physical machines, blade infrastructures, virtual machines and image archives over the network.

The B2net design also incorporates Symantec Enterprise Vault for email and file archiving; NTP Software’s QFS Storage Firewall solution; and an Overland Storage tape library for holdig the backed-up data.

Calor was impressed by B2net’s in-depth knowledge and end-to-end approach. Andrew Browne, Network Manager, Calor Gas, said: “B2net proved it had the capability and expertise to deliver an enterprise server consolidation. It's impartiality is a strength, it provides an end-to-end solution, compared with some vendors that often have to pull in experts from a wide range of sources.”

“The new server approach will enable us to have as close to a 24/7 operation as we can. The aim was to significantly reduce the maintenance we needed to run on the old system in terms of patching, upgrades and downtime. By moving to a virtual storage environment, we can maximise storage efficiency and demand, and reduce the cost base of the infrastructure. We had to make the project as cost-neutral as possible by removing physical barriers and reutilising our newer servers for other projects instead of purchasing new ones.”

Calor Gas Ireland

Interestingly Calor Gas in Ireland has also undergone a server and storage consolidation exercise, but this went in a different storage direction. Following the integration of operations across nine sites in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Sean O’Donohue, ICT Manager at Calor Gas Ireland, was tasked with streamlining business processes and reducing overheads across the organisation. He went with a proposal from Triangle Computer Services Ireland and migrated twenty legacy servers onto a single IBM 4-CPU x445 server using VMware P2V Assistant; software that transforms the image of a physical machine into a VMware virtual machine. (No PlateSpin here.) The virtual servers run under VMWare's ESX server.

Triangle consolidated all of Calor's existing disparate data storage onto a single, high availability platform, an IBM ESS 800 (Shark) drive array with 3TB of capacity and resilient fibre channel HBA connections to the server. An IBM 3580 LTO tape library is used for backup. Having a single, high-speed platform for all data storage requirements has led to increased efficiencies, eased support challenges, and replaced a complex system that was difficult to manage.

Calor Gas Ireland plans to migrate a further twenty servers into the virtual infrastructure as part of its now constant drive to streamline processes.

It estimated that is has saved up to 40 percent in administration time on routine processes, such as backup procedures. As a result the company has been able to reduce the computer operation staff by one. The use of VMware ESX server eliminates the need to purchase a dedicated server each time a new application is required, increasing business agility. Through the consolidation of hardware and data storage, economies of scale have led to cost savings and created much-needed space in the data centre.

Drawing some conclusions

What is evident is that Calor responds to its local IT supplier: B2net in the UK; and, in Ireland, Triangle Computer Services. Ironically Triangle is a largely UK-based operation. Another conclusion is that for Calor a virtual infrastructure is a core part of its long-term IT strategy. On the server side that is VMware. On the storage side there is no clear-cut choice although fibre channel SAN links are used to the the two different drive array choices. (Ironically again IBM and Network Appliance are connected by a reselling deal.)

On the backup side tape is it; IBM in Ireland and Overland Data in the UK. Calor is not yet at the stage of looking at backup-to disk.

These were fairly late migrations to a SAN storage architecture. Both were associated with a move to virtual servers and both involved Fibre Channel SANs. This was probably more due to the knowledge sets of B2net and Triangle rather than any decision that iSCSI was unsuitable. Elsewhere we are hearing that IP SAN vendors such as LeftHand Networks and EqualLogic are finding virtual servers and IP SANs increasingly operate in conjunction. Not so with Calor.

It may well be the case that the onrush of virtual servers helps mop up many SAN holdouts and banishes direct-attached storage from virtual servers altogether. Ditto blade servers probably. Consolidating servers of necessity implies consolidating storage.