US university to boost storage with iSCSI SAN

US university to boost storage with iSCSI SAN

Coppin State University in Baltimore, faced a data explosion that had overwhelmed its two Fibre Channel storage arrays, forcing it to look for a way to supply its departments with easy-to-manage online storage that wouldn't break the school's budget.

Officials saw two choices: Either completely replace two EMC high-end storage arrays, or add storage in the form of a second storage-area network (SAN). The school chose the latter, opting for an Internet SCSI implementation that has the university convinced that IP storage is the future. The iSCSI SAN from LeftHand Networks cost US$100,000 -- a steal compared with what it might have cost to upgrade the Fibre Channel infrastructure, according to Mitch PreVatte, director of network services at Coppin.

"The iSCSI SAN was one of the smoothest installs I've ever done," PreVatte said. "Fibre Channel, on the other hand, is a complex animal and requires a lot of specialized knowledge. If you don't happen to have that knowledge, there's a significant learning curve. Installing our Fibre Channel SAN was just a nightmare. We had tons of grief and in fact still have tons of grief."

PreVatte said he is currently looking at a US$57,000 bill from EMC for servicing Coppin's SAN to fix problems with the Fibre Channel SAN installed three and a half years ago. So spending US$100,000 to get another 8TB SAN via iSCSI was a comparative bargain. The iSCSI SAN took half a day to install.

"The ability to rearrange things on the iSCSI SAN -- to move a server to this port or another switch -- is just another plug-and-play with iSCSI. It requires rezoning when you're doing it in Fibre Channel," PreVatte said.

PreVatte said the issue with his Fibre Channel SAN isn't EMC's fault; it has to do with Coppin's storage vendor, nPlusOne Inc. in Edinburgh. NPlusOne recommended that the school upgrade one of its Brocade Communications Systems Inc. Fibre Channel switches -- which ran out of ports -- with a director-class switch from McData. The change has caused the school nothing but headaches, PreVatte said. The two switches don't talk with each other.

The other issue the school had with its EMC hardware was that although the arrays could perform data snapshots and synchronous replication of data across the campus, the complexity of those features made PreVatte wary of using them. "Using those features with iSCSI is a day-and-night difference," said PreVatte, who is replicating data on campus between two LeftHand iSCSI arrays.

The new iSCSI SAN was needed to support a special project the school rolled out in June called Tegrity Notes. Tegrity Notes allows students to use a special electronic pen that captures notes digitally. Whenever the electronic pen is placed back in its cradle, the data is automatically stored in the school's SAN. Once the notes are stored, they are automatically matched up with a recording of the class that includes audio, video and notes presented by the instructor. When a student studies, he can bring that class and his electronic notes up on his laptop or PC and click on a particular note he took, thereby bringing up the corresponding material that the instructor presented.

The class information is accessible from anywhere on the Internet.

The university has 1,400 computers on its data network, along with 650 IP-enabled phones. The school also just completed a PeopleSoft deployment that ate up the rest of 8.6TB of storage space on two older-model EMC Symmetrix arrays. While PreVatte still trusts his Symmetrix arrays with the transactional databases that hold financial, human resources and student information, he's moving forward with iSCSI and won't continue to expand his Fibre Channel environment for other data.

"I've had no problems with reliability of the EMC gear. Their storage has been extremely reliable," he said. "But I'm also dependent on outside resources, because if something doesn't do what it's supposed to be doing, I need someone who can get in there and fix the problems."

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