University learns SAN lesson

Case Western Reserve University had a highly distributed environment that wasn't passing the storage grade. In order to free admins and maximize resources, CWRU graduated to a SAN.

The data storage systems at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, were flunking. Faced with supporting a wide variety of application requirements, the university, which has 4,000 undergrads and 6,000 graduate students, had allowed each department to develop -- and in many cases run -- its own storage environment.

"There was no consistency among the departments. So, in some instances, data backups were occurring only randomly," noted Lev Gonick, Case Western Reserve University's chief information officer. "And since we had so many systems running autonomously, we weren't utilizing our data storage systems effectively."

The university's servers support a wide range of applications: e-mail, personal calendars, course management, research databases for genomics, bio-informatics, digital art repositories, advanced visualization, human resources, student information systems, and finance. The hodgepodge was running on a large number of Sun systems and Dell servers. Operating systems in use included Solaris, Windows and Linux. In addition, various research arms had specialized systems designed for detailed graphic images and complex computations.

There was also an array of data storage systems. Departments stored information -- usually at the desktop level -- on a variety of different media, from tape systems to zip drives. A few storage area networks (SANs) had also emerged in areas with heavy data usage.

The result was inefficient use of both Case Western's storage resources and its IT personnel. The IT department's crown jewel, the university's LAN, was also not being fully utilized. Because researchers often worked with large files, the university had installed a 16,000-node, state-of-the-art network with 1-gigabit Ethernet connections to department work sites and a 10-gigabit Ethernet backbone connecting the primary locations. "Since we had the network bandwidth available, we thought it would be a good idea to use for high-bandwidth applications, such as network backups," said Gonick.

So in the fall of 2001, the university began to examine ways to reign in the chaos. That spring, the academic institution issued a request for proposals (RFP) to potential suppliers and started hearing from more than a dozen companies. Quickly, the list was pared down to Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems and EMC.

Because Case Western anticipated some difficulty connecting its wide range of servers, technical support was a major consideration. Also, the university wanted to install a combination SAN and NAS (network-attached storage) which would support iSCSI. "We didn't want to put in a Fibre Channel system in order just to get the new storage system working," said Gonick. Those concerns, along with attractive pricing, pushed the selection to EMC.

After making the decision to go with EMC at the beginning of the summer, the university installed its first new storage array in September. The initial applications were e-mail, its LDAP directory, and DBMS applications. "A large part of our initial efforts was focused on making our e-mail as bulletproof as possible," said Gonick.

At the same time, the university revamped its server configurations and had a few challenges getting the clustering function to work on the various devices. Since there were so many suppliers involved, some fingerpointing occurred.

Once the problems were resolved, the university installed EMC's CLARiiON CX600 SAN and Celerra NS600 NAS. For storage management software, they incorporated EMC's ControlCenter management system, including SAN Manager, StorageScope and Database Tuner. They also incorporated EMC's PowerPath, Data Manager, Automated Resource Manager and Replication Manager software.

20 applications and four terabytes (TB) of data are now under the control of the new storage systems. From a single computer screen, central technicians can now view all of the storage infrastructure used in Case Western Reserve's eight schools. Since making the change, the academic institution has been able to reduce its manpower requirements from nearly two dozen technicians down to just three. "The technicians all had multitasking functions, so now they are focusing their time and efforts on tasks, such as installing new software, rather than monitoring our storage usage," said Gonick.

The university has also seen improvements in its storage utilization. Rather than the 20% mark, utilization rates now range from 60% to 80%. And when the institution approaches the higher rates, the software automatically kicks off a process resulting in more storage being added.

While a lot of progress has been made, more work remains. The university expects to add more applications to the new architecture during the next 18 months and then have 6TB of information. While the central storage solution has proven beneficial, the university hopes to further exploit its new system in the future. "Longer term, we hope to use new software tools and exploit functions like virtualization," said Gonick. "There has been a growing maturity with the software tools so they are better than they were 3 to 4 years ago, but there is still a ways to go before they are as functional as we would like."


For more information on Case Western Reserve University, visit its Web site

For more information on EMC, click here.

How innovative is your company or someone you know? Nominate a true storage trailblazer for a prestigious "Storage Innovators" award. The deadline for entry is July 25, 2003.

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This was first published in June 2003

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