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Colleges Use Storage Virtualization to Support Distance Learning

As colleges expand online learning, storage takes center stage — and virtualization makes it all happen.

At Florida Atlantic University, something had to give. As the university expanded its use of lecture capture for distance learning programs, the IT staff recognized that FAU needed a more efficient way to store and manage large video files.

"We couldn't sustain any more than one semester of classes on our existing systems," explains Mehran Basiratmand, CTO and director of enterprise computing services at the Boca Raton, Fla., research institution.

"We were concerned about how we would continue to provide students with onsite and distance learning options."

For FAU and many other colleges facing growing storage demands, virtualization offers a robust and mature solution.

Storage virtualization, along with related management tools, lets IT managers combine multiple physical disks into a single pool. This maximizes storage resources while simultaneously reducing complexity and automating many management tasks, such as dynamically allocating storage space to server applications.

"Virtualization can significantly reduce capital and operating expenditures by increasing disk utilization and reducing the total amount of storage required," says Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting, a storage industry consultancy. "Plus, it reduces and consolidates management while making all future storage technology refreshes nondisruptive events — simple, easy and without downtime.''

FAU, home to about 29,000 students and 3,500 staff, decided to deploy a 500-terabyte virtualized NetApp storage area network. "We needed a highly available, fast, cost-effective and platform-agnostic SAN," says Basiratmand.

Additionally, the university deployed solid-state disks. The SSDs outperform traditional hard disk drives by two to three orders of magnitude, and also have significantly reduced power and cooling requirements. Basiratmand says he and his staff felt that SSDs offered the performance they were looking for as the university moved to create a private cloud and eventually offer infrastructure as a service.

FAU sees IaaS and the cloud as a way to meet long-term teaching and learning needs while addressing short-term issues, such as a recent $24 million budget cut. "Offering our private cloud to other departments will be part of our institution's strategy to reduce costs," says Basiratmand.

Forming the Cloud

To build its private cloud, FAU installed dual NetApp FAS3240 enclosures. The NetApp gear is deployed in active-active configurations for high availability at both its main data center and disaster recovery site. An active-active setup writes data to both enclosures simultaneously, creating a fully redundant storage system that reduces the impact of an outage on end users.

Additionally, FAU opted for 1TB of SSD storage and a complete NetApp software suite that features multiple virtualization and other storage technologies. One of the virtualization tools, automated tiering, intelligently shifts the most active apps and data sets from low-performance disks to the SSDs. "The longer an app runs, the more its performance improves," says Basiratmand.

Deduplication and shadowing technologies are also helpful. Deduplication reduces the storage volume required by removing duplicated data, such as one e-mail sent to multiple individuals. Basiratmand says shadowing lets FAU create copies of large data sets quickly. "Now we can clone our database in minutes rather than days," he says.

The university also negotiated a five-year maintenance agreement, which improves the cost-effectiveness of building out the system.

"This reduces expenses compared with the average growth we expect," Basiratmand says. "And it insulates us from price increases because of natural disasters like tsunamis that cause disk shortages."

80% Disk storage utilization rates achieved by adopting various storage virtualization technologies

SOURCE: Dragon Slayer Consulting

After cutting over to the new system in March, FAU saw immediate benefits to teaching and learning.

First, the new system can accommodate larger files, which means they can run lecture capture in high definition. Also, FAU now offers students significantly more storage space for their personal use.

"And the learning management system became more available because the NetApp software allows us to quickly failover to our DR site," says Basiratmand.

The IT staff also found advantages in the new system. For starters, allocating storage to new virtual server environments is easier than before. In addition, consolidating islands of storage into a pool on the SAN saves the university on administration.

"This permits us to shift IT staff to other critical functions," Basiratmand says.

The 99 Percent Solution

On the West Coast, the University of San Diego also faced limitations with its existing systems.

At USD, more than 99 percent of the private Roman Catholic institution's 8,300 students come to campus with a computing device, with each student bringing two or more mobile devices on average.

Compounding storage challenges, many of USD's 1,500 employees also access the network with multiple devices.

"From course materials to collaborative tools to social networking, our population has high expectations that everything be available instantly," explains Mike Somerville, USD's manager of systems support.

Server sprawl in USD's existing storage environment created the potential for performance bottlenecks. This led the university to adopt a virtualized EMC unified storage system to complement its VMware vSphere server environment.

"With EMC owning roughly 80 percent of VMware, it was the best choice for us because we wanted to consolidate manufacturers," says Chris Wessells, vice provost and CIO for USD. "EMC storage is one piece of an important turnkey solution that integrates switching, virtualization and storage technology," he adds.

For hardware, USD selected two network-attached storage solutions: an EMC Celerra NS-480 and an EMC VNX 5500. Combined, they provide more than 70TB of storage, including 800 gigabytes of SSD capacity.

The system also includes the EMC Fully Automated Storage Tiering (FAST) Suite, which optimizes performance and absorbs unexpected workload spikes in USD's cloud infrastructure.

Significant improvements followed the implementation, including a fivefold network performance increase. "Overall, we have a much more stable environment," says Somerville.

Teaching and learning have also improved. "A big gain for us is the ability to expand our lecture capture system," Wessells says.

Operationally, the EMC system let USD's IT organization move from reactive to proactive. "Instead of firefighting, we've been able to concentrate on innovation," notes Somerville.

Software Shines

Some two-year colleges, such as Victoria College in Victoria, Texas, and Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, N.C., are also leveraging storage virtualization technology.

Both colleges sought a system that was hardware agnostic. Each settled on FalconStor's Network Storage Server (NSS), a software-based solution that FalconStor calls a virtual appliance.

At Victoria — where an IT staff of 12 supports 4,500 students, the main campus, six satellites and about 300 employees — the adoption of FalconStor NSS let the college add lecture capture without breaking the budget.

With its existing SAN networking switch at capacity, the expense of a new switch to handle the lecture capture server was prohibitive.

"As a solution, we used FalconStor NSS to present virtual storage to the server," explains Daniel Robinson, Victoria College's systems administrator.

"This strategy saved us thousands of dollars on a new switch as well as the downtime to install it," he adds. "The solution worked well out of the box. It's solid, and functioned as intended."

Going forward, Victoria plans to upgrade networking systems to 10-Gigabit Ethernet and update FalconStor NSS to match. "Once everything is 10-Gig, we'll consider using FalconStor to virtualize even more," Robinson says.

For Cape Fear Community College, virtualization has played an important role in meeting the growing availability demands of approximately 28,000 students and 550 employees. "People don't go home anymore," says Jakim Friant, Cape Fear's Unix system administrator. "They're always logging in."

To fulfill always-on demand, the college moved toward anytime access. "Rather than being shut down in the evening, now the student portal is online all of the time," Friant explains.

The solution for Cape Fear was to deploy FalconStor NSS to virtualize the storage used by the institution's enterprise resource planning system. "It's always being accessed by someone," Friant adds.

Look Before You Leap

Is your organization in the market for a storage virtualization solution? Veteran storage analyst Marc Staimer of Dragon Slayer Consulting, a storage industry consultancy, suggests asking these five questions before jumping in:

  • Does the solution work with all of the storage systems it will support?
  • Are there referral customers who do something similar to what your organization wants to do?
  • Does the solution offer appropriate performance characteristics to meet existing needs?
  • Will it grow and scale as your institution's storage needs grow and scale?
  • Is it compatible with the warranties of the storage systems it supports?
Scott Wiseman
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Aug 10 2012 Spice IT

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