Pop Quiz: Seminole College Chooses Macrostor-Hitachi Storage to Expand Online Capabilities

With technologically savvy student populations demanding 24x7 access to their college's services, it is natural to consider Internet transactions. Seminole Community College discovered that it would take more than a dedicated Web site to make effective online student registration happen.

As academic institutions feel the pressures of maintaining 24x7 access to their course offerings and services, it is natural to consider Internet transactions as a means for carrying out a 24x7 strategy with a computer-savvy student population. However, Seminole Community College (Sanford, Fla.) discovered that it would take more than a dedicated Web site to make effective online student registration happen.

"We have been a Unisys shop for the past 15 years," explains Dick Hamann, Seminole’s Director of Computing and Telecommunications Services. "During that time, we have had a variety of mainframes – from a Unisys Micro A to a ClearPath. At the time that we began running student registration online, we were finding that we had very little disk left for processing. We were on a Unisys A11-422, running 22 gigabytes of disk on 28 hard drives. The largest of these hard drives was 1.5 megabytes. We were not in a RAID environment, and we had no redundancy for purposes of process continuation or disaster recovery."

Finding a Storage Solution

Seminole recognized that it needed another storage strategy if it was to be effective in handling current and future online student registration needs. At the same time, it realized that its budget dollars were finite. Many of the solutions to the storage issue that the college originally looked at were too expensive. Seminole needed a storage solution that would fit financially, as well as technically.

"Through the years, we had a well-established relationship with MacroStor," notes Dick Hamann. "We decided to take a hard look at the MacroStor-Hitachi product."

When Hamann and his staff approached MacroStor, they came with significant uptime and service issues. "We knew that once we decided to really pursue online student registration, we would not have just 200 to 300 users – but that we could have thousands," remembers Hamann. "We did some initial work and added software, but our first attempt at providing online student registration capability taxed our processing power. We also found that it was difficult to handle all of the hard drives, and that our programming staff was running out of software development room on our Unisys Micro A computer. Working together with MacroStor, we moved both our development and production environments onto one Hitachi box, increasing storage from 22 to 144 gigabytes."

The MacroStor-Hitachi approach was new for Seminole, and had few other precedents in the Unisys community at that time. It also presented some risks, because at that time the equipment was not certified by Unisys. "MacroStor presented us with a couple of storage solutions for online student registration when we went to the Hitachi unit, and we took a bit of a gamble, since there was no other Unisys site employing it as we were at that time," says Dick Hamann. "We have since found that our gamble has paid off ... We have had absolutely no problems. In fact, the performance of the unit has been so good that we have yet to use the software we installed for system diagnostics. We were just discussing that we still don’t even know how to fully use the diagnostics software today – because we have never needed to use it."

Implementing the System

When it implemented additional storage for online student registration, Seminole Community College pursued the project in stages.

"First, we prepared our Unisys A11 mainframe for the student online registration pilot," says Paul Bachard, Manager of Data Communications and Mainframe Systems Administrator for Seminole Community College. "Then, we brought up the CPs."

One of the questions Seminole’s IT Department had was whether they could use the same hard drives with multiple mainframes. "The MacroStor-Hitachi people reassured us that this would work, and it did," says Bachard. "In fact, configuration was completed within two hours. To give ourselves enough time for the storage conversion, we set aside a three-day Fourth of July weekend for completion of the entire changeover. We started on a Saturday, and by Sunday, everything was done. A team of MacroStor, Unisys and ourselves were on hand to do the job."

In making the conversion to the new MacroStor-Hitachi storage approach, Seminole has solved the demands on processing used by 24x7 online student registration. It also solved its redundancy issues.

"Before we made the change, we had 22 gigabytes of hard drive space and 28 hard drives with no RAID technology," says Dick Hamann. "This left us no redundancy capability for failover, because if anything happened to one drive, the entire system went down. Now, we’re up all of the time, running RAID5 and carrying a hot spare."

For Seminole, the RAID5, in itself, safeguards against failure – because if two hard drives go down, the college still has other drives to go to. "The impact was unbelievable," remarks Hamann. "We went from a 10 hours per day of system availability for our users to an uptime situation of 22 hours a day, with just a small two-hour window each day that we reserve for running our batch processing."

Going Forward

Hamann and his staff believe that they will be able to push online processing capability to 23 hours a day in the future, taking the processor offline for just one hour per day. "This is important to us, because we really don’t have a normal ‘slow time’ at nights in which to perform batch processing," elaborates Hamann. "With students, one of our peak times for online registration is between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Another peak period is between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m, and a third is between 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. The increased access has generated more student online registration activity, and it also has enabled us to add other functions, like online fee payment."

Increased system reliability saves Hamann manpower. He estimates that the combination of Web-enabled student registration and fee payment with extended processing capability and reliability on the hard drives is the equivalent of "two to four people that we don’t need to hire. The system is so fast and reliable that we no longer feel we need to be onsite all of the time to make sure that it’s running – and with the redundancy options we’ve now incorporated, the students would never know when we’re down."

Thus far, Seminole has enjoyed 100 percent uptime on its Web-enabled online applications with the MacroStor-Hitachi storage solution, now in place for over one year. The college’s Web site is becoming a "front end" to all of its service offerings to students, and metrics that Seminole maintains demonstrate that up to 99.9 percent of all student requests for information and services have been rapidly responded to. This meets the college’s responsiveness expectations.

The changeover to the new storage strategy also was seamlessly executed from the standpoint of the IT staff. IT software developers didn’t lose any time when the development environment was transferred over to the Unisys A11 mainframe, using the new storage capability. To facilitate this, conversion staff made sure that none of the original disk configuration was changed during implementation. Pack ids were maintained, with databases, object code and system code remaining on the same packs. "This was easier for us to do than I had first imagined," observes Paul Bachard. "Working together with two MacroStor software technicians, we sat down for three or four hours and divided logical units into pack ids. Everything came up right away."

Bachard noted that the learning curve for the new storage only took him an hour to understand – and that he also encountered other benefits during installation of the system. "At the onset, I was imagining that it would take us 20 hours to offload and load 35 to 40 reels of tape," he mentions. "The process was actually much shorter, because we were able to perform the offload and load on a system to system basis, using the Copy and Compare facilities for quality assurance."

Concluding Remarks

Dick Hamann’s software developers now have a test database, which has improved the reliability of internally-developed software applications. "With our former disk limitations, we didn’t have the space for a full test database," he said. "We wrote programs to offload data in smaller samples that we would test – but today we have full-grown copies of all databases, and the tests are performed against ‘real’ production environments. This has improved the quality of the applications we deliver to our users."

Hamann also acknowledges that he saves about $100,000 a year in expenses – and that MacroStor helped him find a way to work with his budget’s constraints. "MacroStor worked out a way to split payments over fiscal years to make it work for us," he comments. "They did everything they had to do to make it work, and that’s why we’ve had a successful partnership for over 10 years."

Every day, Dick Hamann and his IT staff see the benefits of the new storage solution in their operations with improved uptime and a solid redundancy strategy. "This is very important to us, because our enterprise systems, like Public Relations, Human Resources and Student Registration must be up all of the time," says Hamann. "We do everything on this system, and the system is mission-critical."