Virtual NAS appliance spurs university to try hybrid cloud storage

Nasuni’s virtual NAS appliance lured a university to try hybrid cloud storage based on low upfront cost, but software option requires on-premises storage system for local cache.

An upfront startup cost of merely $300 was the allure for California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) to take the hybrid cloud storage plunge with a software-based virtual NAS appliance from Nasuni Corp.

CSUCI had a pressing need to store exponentially growing amounts of static data, including large video files, for the library and faculty members. The university purchased three NAS boxes from Dell Inc. for operational data last summer, but state agencies often face challenges getting the necessary approvals to make purchases when money is scarce. Plus, finding the time to take down machines and do the installation work can be burdensome.

"With Nasuni, I say, 'Here's your share. Have at it,'" said Herbert Aquino, CSUCI's manager of academic and information technology, which, despite the Channel Islands designation, is actually located on the mainland in Camarillo.

Aquino downloaded the Nasuni Filer 2.0 and found the wizards-based setup easy. The Nasuni software runs as a virtual machine (VM) on the school's VMware Inc. ESX Server and gets its storage from CSUCI's EMC Corp. Clariion CX3-40 array, which is equipped with fast Fibre Channel (FC) disks.

"When I ran my initial test, it was faster than our actual NAS boxes," said Aquino.

The university went live in mid-January 2011 with 500 GB for the Nasuni virtual NAS appliance, but its engineers have experimented with reducing the cache to 64 GB to explore the performance impact on file retrieval before they settle on a final capacity for the local cache. They initially thought the system needed to keep an equal amount of cache in the CX3-40 and data in the cloud, but they've since learned that's not the case.

"They want to push to see what this thing can do," Aquino explained. "We notice that as we push the envelope on the filer, the server would react a little slow. The other thing is, they have what they call 'dirty cache,' meaning stuff that hasn't been replicated [to the cloud]. We notice that going up significantly."

The Nasuni Filer prompts the customer to select a supported cloud storage provider, and Nasuni takes care of the API support and factors in the provider's over-the-wire data transfer charges to its capacity-based monthly fee. Aquino settled on cloud services from Inc. (S3) and Microsoft Corp. (Azure). So far, CSUCI has approximately 750 GB of photos, videos and old documents between the two cloud services.

"Storing files up is a bit slow," for the initial data transfer, Aquino admitted. He said it took more than two days to upload 500 GB over the university's 10 Gbps connection. Since then, individual files as large as 10 GB are no problem, "but if you go past that, it gets to be very slow," he said.

"If you're storing onesy, twosy files up there, it's no big deal," Aquino added.

So far, Aquino views the virtual NAS appliance approach as promising. He said likes the fact that he can attach Nasuni Filer to his Windows domain infrastructure and provide user access to file shares at a granular level. Other features that caught his attention were the data encryption, space-saving deduplication, synchronization of periodic snapshots to the cloud for backup and the potential usefulness for disaster recovery (DR), because the university campus borders a flood plain.

"The reason why Nasuni becomes appealing is that it's portable," Aquino said. "We could set this up at a second site at another [California State University]. Again, 300 bucks, entrance fee, not a whole lot of money, and then I could start pulling files from that filer."

If the Nasuni deployment continues to go well, Aquino plans to upload more primary data, such as group shares and home directories, to the cloud. But speed remains a concern, so the university will continue to test the system before taking the next step.

Aquino faces long-term decisions about where to store the Nasuni filer's cache. He'll eventually have to determine whether to stick with traditional data storage systems or test out hardware-based hybrid cloud appliances.

"I've always known one world, and that's to keep physical storage here," Aquino said. "But now, there's a lot of technology I really need to look at."

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