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Universities struggle to keep up with storage demands

Students, faculty clamor for space to store fast-growing audio, video, text files

Exploding data growth on college campuses, driven by rich media, virtual classrooms and fast-growing e-mail files, is forcing IT managers to quickly find ways to quickly boost storage capacity.

IT managers at The University of North Texas in Denton were surprised by the rapid growth of e-mail files when the university started replacing Novell Inc.'s Groupwise software with Microsoft's Exchange in February, said Dave Gerlach, computer systems manager for North Texas' Computing and Information Technology Center.

IT managers had initially expected that the 6,500 Exchange e-mail boxes would collectively require 3.5TB of storage capacity, up from 700GB needed for the older system, Gerlach said. "Then we get there and we [need] 7.6TB, which just blew me away," he said.

Factoring in extra capacity needed for fail-over, storage administrators, finally determined that the e-mail system would ultimately require 15.2TB of capacity, Gerlach said. The university began a gradual process of deploying the Exchange e-mail system earlier this month, he added.

Much of the added e-mail storage needs can be traced to ever-larger attachments, which include PowerPoint presentations and video and MP3 files, Gerlach said.

To meet e-mail and non-e-mail storage requirements, the company replaced its Hitachi Data Systems Lightning 9960 and EMC Clariion CX 600 storage systems with four new arrays from Compellent Technologies, he noted.

The new arrays provide a storage capacity of 142TB, including 22.5TB for e-mail, Gerlach said. "Data is exploding, and we're trying to keep up," he remarked.

He estimated the cost of the new storage systems at about US$8,400 per terabyte.

In addition to the e-mail needs, a growing Oracle database and increased use of WebCT Web classroom applications from Washington-based Blackboard are fueling the need for increased storage capacity, he said.

"People want more classrooms available online, and more students are enrolling, so the classroom gets larger," Gerlach noted. At the same time, he noted that most professors want their online classes to be stored indefinitely.

Overall, Gerlach's group manages roughly 300 servers and the university network, he said. The IT operation is responsible for performing schoolwide backup operations through a subscription and chargeback model, he added.

Doug Chandler, an analyst at IDC, said college IT departments are under increasing pressure to spruce up data management and storage capacities as "selling points" to an emerging breed of students who have used high-end technology and expect to have access to the latest technologies at college.

"It's a lot different now than we were talking about six or seven years ago, [with] larger files, videos and graphics-oriented files," said Chandler. He added that the amount of data now stored by students is "astounding."

Jerry Waldron, CIO at Salisbury University in Maryland, said his school is experiencing annual data growth of 15 percent to 20 percent a year. The university storage systems currently hold about 15TB of data, he added.

He agreed that Salisbury must satisfy increasingly technology-savvy students and faculty, who are demanding more storage space for both personal and class-related files.

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"Every 12 months, the expectation of the newest group of students pushes the bar a little higher," remarked Waldron. "This year, it's wireless and storage, next it will be more multimedia and Web 2.0."

"We're keeping an eye on things like social networking sites like YouTube -- all these things you never would've thought we'd look at a few years ago," he added.

Salisbury's storage-area network (SAN) runs an EMC Clariion CX600 array with both ATA and fiber-channel disks, alongside an EMC Celerra NS702 network-attached storage (NAS), Waldron said.

The IT unit is responsible for providing e-mail service to about 12,000 people at the university, Waldron said.

Each faculty member is provided with 2GB of e-mail storage capacity, he said. "This has become a big part of how they teach. We've expanded our storage system to accommodate them as much as we can," noted Waldron.

Salibury's 7,500 students each get 200MB of free e-mail storage capacity, he said.

To keep up with the increasing demands, Salisbury will soon add an 8TB mini-SAN system from Avid Technologies that will also support a new 20,000 square-foot media center that's slated to open next September.

David Medeiros, senior systems engineer at California State University in San Marcos, said his school's data storage needs are growing by about 30 percent a year.

The biggest challenges for the school's IT storage unit include managing the rapidly-growing number of video files in its storage systems and satisfying expectations of users who are demanding instant access to their data, Medeiros said.

"It's definitely changed. People want access to their stuff all the time, and they don't want quotas. It's a challenge to keep all of that up," he noted.

The university runs mostly Network Appliance Inc. systems to store 24TB of data, Medeiros said. It uses a NetApp FAS3050C to house all student home directories and Microsoft Exchange and Oracle databases, he said.

The college runs a NetApp R200 nearline storage array to back up the FAS3050C and a separate R200 array to store video files, Medeiros said.

By next spring, Medeiros said he plans to roll out new technology that will enable the university to boot virtualized systems from the 3050C device by attaching Fibre Channel arrays to a VMware ESX server.

For Corey Grone, IT manager at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, exploding data growth on campuses -- which he says was spawned from thumb drives and external hard drives -- is a "scary" issue that requires increasing attention from IT managers.

In tandem with a project to outsource his school's e-mail storage to an online backup and storage provider, the university recently implemented a shared file server.

Grone said he hopes that the two initiatives will help lessen escalating storage maintenance and support burdens from IT.

Some colleges turning to online storage options

Some colleges are turning to hosted online storage services to keep up with the fast-growing needs of faculty and students who are storing ever-larger amounts of data.

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The University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health last month started rolling out the MozyPro online backup service from EMC's Berkeley Data System unit for its faculty and staff.

The school turned to Salt Lake City-based Berkeley after a consultant called its lack of unified backup systems a "weakness" and a "concern," said IT manager Corey Grone.

The online service is not available to students, who will continue to be offered a small amount of storage on a central Unix system, he added.

The university has initially purchased 90 MozyPro licenses and 200GB of storage, and Grone said the amount of storage may increase if demand grows.

Last month, Duke University, launched a fee-based program to allow students, staff and faculty to store personal data on the Connected Backup for PC service from Boston-based Iron Mountain.

Users can purchase as much capacity as they need, said Billy Herndon, systems vice president for enterprise information and services in Duke's IT office.

Duke does allow the students to store 5GB of university-related files without charge on its own WebFiles online storage system, Herndon said. The free online service uses Duke's distributed network file system, he noted.

The school launched WebFiles only last month for group collaboration, coursework, video streaming and Web site construction projects, Herndon said.

Duke turned to online storage to increase capacity without affecting infrastructure or IT operations, Herndon said. "We didn't want to necessarily go through reinventing the wheel because resources are limited," he said.

Doug Chandler, an analyst at IDC, said schools using a single online service can improve the security of the data they store.