Case Study: Small College Addresses Big Storage and DR Needs

Newly created Olin College chose a beefy but cost-effective iSCSI storage area network for rapidly escalating storage needs

Faced with a rapidly growing student population and burgeoning storage needs, Olin College in Massachusetts chose a cost-effective IP-based storage area network (SAN) solution—and, in a clever twist, is sharing offsite storage and disaster continuity with another small college nearby.

Storage needs were growing at an exponential rate at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., which officially opened its doors in 2002 and graduated its first class in May. The college offers an engineering education that can includes art, music, photos, and multimedia, meaning some hefty computing and storage needs. The school was using a standalone storage system with individual servers scattered across campus. However, continually adding servers was proving expensive and difficult to manage, according to Joanne Kossuth, Olin’s CIO and associate VP for development.

As the new college kept growing, Kossuth says, newly hired faculty brought years’ worth of online material with them, along with the expectation of enough space to store it all. The number of students grew yearly as each new class joined the college, and both faculty and students were interested in storage-intensive projects such as e-portfolios, Web development and production, and multimedia.

With the distributed storage and accompanying tape backup system, Kossuth says, “our backups were taking forever because we were doing [daily] incremental backups and [weekly] full backups.” Instead, Olin needed a cost-effective storage solution that would allow selective “snapshot” backups on the fly as needed for specific projects, and full backups of mission-critical areas on a long-term basis. It also needed to consolidate its scattered storage servers into a SAN.

In its search for a new storage solution, Olin considered Fibre Channel offerings from EMC and HP/Compaq, IP-based solutions from LeftHand Networks and EqualLogic, and both IP- and Fibre Channel-based solutions from RAID Inc. and XIOtech. Cost differences became apparent quickly, Kossuth says—solutions from storage vendors offering Fibre Channel were two-and-a-half times the cost of the iSCSI solution from EqualLogic they eventually chose.

EqualLogic’s SAN solution is iSCSI-based—it uses IP protocols for linking storage devices over the network—so storage could be integrated into Olin’s existing network instead of needing a separate Fibre Channel network. Olin is now running two PS Series PS 100E EqualLogic servers in addition to a shared EqualLogic server at Babson College nearby.

Also driving the storage upgrade were business continuity and disaster recover needs, which led to the unique relationship with Babson College. Since Babson also purchased an iSCSI SAN solution from EqualLogic, the two schools are able to team up. The deal gives both colleges the ability to hot-swap components in the storage array if a system goes down, along with a direct fiber connection for getting information up quickly after an emergency. It also lets each school use the other’s location for offsite storage. “It was a good fit for us,” Kossuth says, “compared to the cost of having to pay for offsite contracts that were basically ‘just-in-case’ insurance policies.”

Building a new network from scratch has allowed Kossuth to create a fully converged network, including telephones, around a single protocol: IP. “Everything on campus runs on IP. The laundry machines, the vending machines, the copy machines, the security system, the air conditioning controls. You name it, it’s on one set of cables and one type of protocol,” Kossuth says. That made an IP-centric storage solution the best fit, since it could run on the existing network. Fibre Channel would have been more expensive initially, and would have required additional software add-ons, staff training, and additional hardware such as adapter cards.

The heterogeneous Olin network consists of a data center with some 75 Windows and Linux servers, with Microsoft Exchange as the mail server. Olin also uses Jenzabar’s ERP system, a common choice in higher education, along with several heavy-duty engineering applications. Since few policies are in place yet on the new network, there’s no limit on mailbox sizes for faculty, staff, and the 200-plus students, so mailboxes can reach a gigabyte apiece.

The system in place involved backing up to tapes using a HP SureStore tape storage solution that is still in use, along with Veritas (now Symantec) Backup Exec software. For disaster recovery and business continuity, duplicate tapes are created for offsite storage in another building on campus and are rotated regularly.

The selection of EqualLogic has added a much more flexible backup scenario. The two EqualLogic servers use disk-to-disk storage, are fully redundant and fault-tolerant, and allow on-the-fly backups at any time without interrupting system use. The SAN system makes use of a flexible pool of storage that can be sized and re-allocated at any time, even while the system is in use.

EqualLogic’s ability to change the size of a storage area on the fly was important to Olin, Kossuth says. Other products they looked at required checking first that the storage area to be changed wasn’t in use. In contrast, Kossuth says, they regularly change storage area sizes on the fly.

Although speed is often touted as one benefit Fibre Channel has over IP, performance hasn’t been an issue with the new system. “With the gigabit interfaces to the storage area network solution, I haven’t seen any throughput issues,” Kossuth says.

Kossuth estimates initial savings of several hundred thousand dollars by purchasing the less-costly iSCSI system rather than Fibre Channel, along with saving weeks of implementation time and consultation. Olin also saves by no longer needing to purchase additional servers for storage, and by re-deploying some of the servers previously used for storage in clusters that offer higher availability and reliability. “Instead of having a $40,000 or $50,000 budget for replacing servers annually,” she says, “we now have a $20,000 budget.”

The rollout was as simple as EqualLogic promised. Kossuth and her team had scheduled two days for the project, and had a server ready to go, as well as an evaluation unit which they’d already tested. “It really was easy, and support was great,” Kossuth says. “No one on campus saw down time because of rolling storage over.” Moving Microsoft Exchange onto the new system did take time, primarily because of the sheer size of the files.

Kossuth says she likes EqualLogic’s approach to iSCSI storage needs for mid-size companies. “When we see their timelines and where they’re heading, they really understand information and content management [in a way] that makes more sense for small and medium businesses.” The largest players in storage, she says, often seem to assume a large storage infrastructure with staff to manage it. “EqualLogic understands that in the small and medium-size space, we have different needs, and they’re trying to work with us to accommodate that.”

The next step at Olin may well be another product from EqualLogic. “We’d really like where they’re going and who they’re going to partner with around content management,” Kossuth notes. She’s specifically interested in making archiving and content management more seamless and intuitive.

EqualLogic’s focus on the needs of small and midsize companies counts. “We don’t have someone [on staff] dedicated to checking all stored information. … And given the structure of EqualLogic’s storage, they have some advantages heading into that space.”

About the Author

Linda Briggs is the founding editor of MCP Magazine and the former senior editorial director of 101communications. In between world travels, she's a freelance technology writer based in San Diego, Calif.