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United Airlines flies high with rebuilt storage framework

When UAL Loyalty scrapped its SSP, it had to build their storage environment from the ground up.

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of five articles highlighting the recent Storage Innovator award winners. UAL Loyalty Services took home honorable mention accolades, April 10 at the Storage Management 2003 conference in Chicago.

"Better, faster, smarter, cheaper." That model became a mantra for Gary Pilafas when UAL Loyalty created an initiative to bring all of its e-commerce sites and related applications in house. When Pilafas -- ULS senior storage and system architect -- applied that model to the company's existing storage service provider (SSP), it came up short on every count. So, with his mantra in mind, he set out to build a data storage system from the ground up.

As a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Airlines Corp., UAL Loyalty maintains the airline's business-to-consumer e-commerce Web site, In addition, ULS manages the e-commerce initiatives for United Airlines Cargo,, College Plus and several other travel-related clubs.

Bringing the sites and their storage systems in house would fulfill some critical, closely linked goals. Virtually merging storage for two data centers, located several miles apart in Illinois, would streamline management and increase storage productivity and capacity. Creating this integrated storage area network (SAN) architecture would also fulfill another requirement: seamless business resumption in less than an hour.

The proposed integrated storage architecture would allow for both data centers to serve all e-commerce applications concurrently. This would allow UAL Loyalty to double its available capacity.

Pilafas knew his SSP couldn't come close to meeting these business goals. "The SSP was just a bad thing," said Pilafas. "It was slow, restrictive and very expensive."

With a crew of ULA Loyalty technicians, Pilafas began planning a "better, faster, smarter, cheaper" storage architecture. His team road-tested all the products from vendors competing for ULA Loyalty's IT dollar. "We really made the vendors prove what they can do," said Pilafas. "We made them earn it."

Making sure the vendors and their products could work together was a top priority. When the evaluation dust had settled, the ULA Loyalty team had chosen products from multiple vendors, including Hitachi Data Systems, Brocade, Sun Microsystems, CreekPath and Veritas.

The new team of ULA Loyalty and its vendors designed a network and storage infrastructure with Fibre Channel Internet Protocol (FCIP) integration.

In the new configuration, ULA Loyalty's data center No. 1 in Elk Grove, Ill, has two storage subsystems consisting of Hitachi disk drives, combined into two fabrics consisting of six Brocade FC switches. That system directs data into a CNT UltraNet Edge storage router. After being converted from FC to IP, the data flows through a core switch across a 5K IP link to data center No. 2 in Shaumberg, Ill. A core switch at that location is connected to another UltraNet Edge router, which sends data into a fabric of six Brocade switches combined into one storage subsystem, once again with Hitachi disk drives.

ULA Loyalty rents the circuit that connects the two locations from Ameritech. Pilafas utilizes GigaMAN, Ameritech's gigabit Ethernet metropolitan area network. "The GigaMAN is the difference between a one-way street and a twelve-lane highway," said Pilafas. "Think of the speed limit of both." It definitely fits into the better, faster, smarter, cheaper model.

The new infrastructure now has servers that host production and failover functions and support both business-to-business and business-to-consumer applications. Pilafas also has a single "pane of glass" that emulates ULA's entire storage environment, said Pilafas.

Now, when it senses a failure, the system replicates data and content is switched from one site to another. "The whole thing is so automated," said Pilafas. He has tested the failover system "like crazy" and can't find a flaw.

The decision to have two physical SAN fabrics that logically appear as one fabric was a good call, Pilafas said. He's found the SAN-based system easy to manage and grow. It allows detailed reporting of storage resources. Also, the IT team has the ability to connect additional servers to the SAN fabric in a matter of hours.

Pilafas is proud of the cutting edge architecture he's crafted. A specialist from CreekPath recently calculated that the company's ability to co-host their QA and business resumption environments between the two data centers netted the ULA Loyalty $600K in cost savings.

"The success of the SAN design will be one of the main contributing factors that will allow ULA Loyalty to help get United Airlines Corp. back on their feet with some much needed profit and stability," stated Pilafas with confidence.

For more information on ULS, visit United's Web site.


>> Tip: Building a SAN from A to Z

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>> Webcast: How to sidestep SAN implementation complexities

This was last published in April 2003

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