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UMich says IP SAN not just about cost

The University of Michigan originally based its decision to implement an IP SAN on cost alone -- but was pleasantly surprised by the management features it got with Intransa.

If Timothy Ralson, Windows system manager with the University of Michigan, had his way a little over a year ago, he'd have gone with a 1 petabyte (PB) Fibre Channel (FC) SAN, "and just told everyone have at it." Unfortunately, that kind of infrastructure was beyond a publicly funded university's budget. So the University of Michigan did what many users have done -- started looking at iSCSI as a lower cost alternative.

"Our faculty was getting research grants and just going to Bob's Bargain Basement for their hardware, and that had some supportability issues, as you can imagine," Ralson said. "We needed to offer them a low-cost alternative for storage that we could get supported."

The company evaluated products from Hewlett Packard Co. (HP), EqualLogic Corp. and Nexsan Technologies. Ralson said he already had about 5 terabytes (TB) of HP's MSA1000 storage implemented in a Fibre-connected, SCSI-based SAN, which the University's administration still uses. And he

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eventually would implement SCSI-based storage from Nexsan for disk-to-disk backup and DAS in some departments. But, he said, Intransa Inc. and EqualLogic were the companies that stood out when it came to implementing an IP SAN for the more than 25 TB of data research departments needed to share.

Almost immediately, he said, he began looking most intensively at Intransa based on price point -- but he stayed for the management features.

The chief appeal of the Intransa system in the end, Ralson said, was its architecture -- customers can buy Intransa's storage "bricks" or capacity separately from the controllers, which Ralson said was perfect for his users who tend to need to add storage to an existing volume without changing configurations.

"With the EqualLogic, you have to buy controllers with every disk enclosure," Ralson said. This can be good, because you can aggregate performance, but we didn't necessarily need our storage to be faster and faster -- we needed it to be fast enough, but we were more concerned with size."

The first system Ralson bought last year was Intransa's IP5500 box, which allows him to add storage quickly and easily -- the storage manager specifies a type of volume for the storage, the RAID level, block size, names it and assigns permissions. Otherwise, the Intransa box selfdiscovers additional storage.

"We can expand on the fly -- add 200 GB in a volume and poof, it's there," Ralson said.

There was one drawback to the 5500 -- its RAID protections. The 5500 only offers RAID-0, 1 or 10, which in some ways didn't offer the protection Ralson wanted, and in others, negated some of iSCSI's cost advantages.

Now, Ralson said, he has begun beta testing Intransa's new IP2000 box, which, in addition to the 5500's manageability features, will offer RAID-5. The box will be generally available to the public this April.

"This is a huge advantage for our end users, since they have to pay for the raw disk while we take care of the backups and connectivity," Ralson said. "Now we can give them parity protection, but they don't have to buy double the disk."

He also noted, however, that he had never lost data with the 5500 -- even with RAID-0.

"We did have one disk fail," he said. "But the system sent us a warning well in advance."

Another advantage of the IP2000 over the 5500 is that management interfaces don't have to be run on a second network. With the 5500, Ralson said, the storage manager had to log in through a separate network, and run two cables accordingly. Now, the management interfaces can run on a separate NIC within the same box, but doesn't require an entirely separate network.

"It's a little thing, not to have to run a separate cable," he said. "But it's a good thing."

In general, Ralson said he was surprised at the bang he'd gotten for his buck.

"Initially, our evaluation was heavily weighted by cost," he said. "But once we got the ball rolling, I've been pleasantly surprised by the manageability and flexibility we've gotten."

Intransa: Movin' on up

Intransa claims to have shipped 1.2 PB of its product since launching.

In a recent column, Knowing the myths of iSCSI, Arun Taneja, founder and analyst with the Taneja Group, wrote, "offerings from the legacy players, who have made millions of dollars from selling FC, are nothing more than an FC storage system with an iSCSI front end … it's what the new players (like Intransa) have done that impress me." In fact, he said, it was the features, not the format, that had made IP SANs so palatable to users. "Much of what [iSCSI players] have done has nothing to do with iSCSI," he wrote. "These new players have done all the hard work that FC players should have done a long time back."

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