University turns to iSCSI for storage on a budget

Coppin State University's data explosion had overwhelmed its two fibre channel storage arrays - the very new iSCSI proved to be the answer

Earlier this year, Coppin State University in Baltimore found itself so overloaded with data that its two fibre channel storage arrays couldn’t handle it all.

The university’s IT operation was forced to find a way to supply users with an easy-to-manage online storage system that wouldn’t break the budget and, once that search began, the IT group saw two possible solutions.

One was to replace its two three-year-old EMC high-end Symmetrix fibre channel storage arrays, which were plagued with problems due to incompatible switches, with new models that support far higher capacity. The second option was to use internet SCSI (iSCSI) technology to add a second SAN (storage-area network).

The university chose the latter option and it implemented the iSCSI SAN in June. Its IT staff has since become convinced that IP storage is critical, citing its relatively low cost and ease of use.

The university bought iSCSI SAN technology for the new network from LeftHand Networks. The US$100,000 (NZ$140,000) price was a steal compared with the potential cost of upgrading its fibre channel infrastructure, says Mitch PreVatte, director of network services at Coppin.

PreVatte has extensive support costs for the fibre channel systems. For example, he says he is looking at a US$57,000 bill from EMC for servicing Coppin’s SAN to fix problems that were caused by the lack of compatibility between switches from Brocade and McData.

He says the switch problems stemmed from a recommendation from nPlusOne, a services firm, that Coppin shift its fibre channel switch suppliers from Brocade to McData, citing a need for the latter’s high-end technology. NPlusOne officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

PreVatte also says he has found the iSCSI technology far less complex than fibre channel.

“The iSCSI SAN was one of the smoothest installs I’ve ever done,” he says. “Fibre channel, on the other hand, is a complex animal and requires a lot of specialised knowledge. Installing our fibre channel SAN was just a nightmare. We had tons of grief and, in fact, still have tons of grief.”

According to Gartner, Coppin’s iSCSI decision is part of a trend. Based on a Gartner survey, the analyst firm projects that by 2006 iSCSI technology will connect almost 1.5 million servers to SANs, more than any competing system.

Gartner analyst James Opfer says iSCSI won’t replace fibre channel in the datacentre because of performance issues, but it will continue to grow substantially as a server consolidation technology, especially for low-end systems.

PreVatte says Coppin’s new iSCSI SAN was installed in time to support a special project the university rolled out in June called Tegrity Notes. The programme allows students to capture class notes digitally and then let the notes reside with recordings of the class that feature audio, video and notes presented by the instructor. The information is accessible on the internet.

Overall, the school requires ever-increasing amounts of storage to support 1,400 computers on its data network, 650 IP-enabled phones and a new PeopleSoft deployment that eats up 8.6TB of storage space on the two Symmetrix arrays, PreVatte says.

PreVatte says the older Symmetrix arrays will continue to run Coppin’s transactional databases that hold financial, human resources and student information, but there are no plans to add fibre channel capacity. Any new storage systems will be based on iSCSI technology, he says.

“I’ve had no problems with reliability of the EMC gear. Their storage has been extremely reliable,” he says.

“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 fix the problems,” says PreVatte.

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