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User forgoes EMC upgrade for StorMagic iSCSI SAN solution

A large university ends its search for simple storage with iSCSI SAN software from StorMagic, ditching EMC's Clariion.

After struggling with some higher priced, more complex systems, the Center for Health Systems Research and Analysis at the University of Wisconsin simplified its environment by combining software from startup StorMagic with commodity hardware.

Richard Ross, director of information systems for the research center, said he went with StorMagic SM Series after realizing his midrange EMC Clariion system was more than he needed and more than he wanted to pay for. Aside from a 3 TB StorMagic installation, the department still has about 9 TB of capacity spread over DAS for production databases and 3 TB on a legacy Clariion array that will soon be phased out. The department processes data for public health policy research with an initiative going on now to use medical data to assess the quality of care of people in nursing homes in the U.S.

The department's first storage system was a 3 TB Dell PowerVault 660 SAN installed in 1999. In 2001, it "became very undependable," according to Ross. Two thirds of the disks in the unit were scrubbed by accident through a cascading set of failures.

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"Dell did a very ethical thing – they said they'd been having too many troubles with this device and offered to buy back my equipment at the same price we'd paid two years earlier," Ross said. Dell also installed an EMC Clariion CX400 at Ross's shop to replace the PowerVault machine. Ross' department only had to pay three years of maintenance.

"Two years after warranty, that system is still working," Ross said. "But it's also five years old and not under maintenance anymore."

Ross said he also realized that a midrange Fibre Channel SAN was overkill for him.

"We are not an enterprise-level shop," he said, despite the research department's 15 TB of capacity. "It's not just about data size, it's also about money and about fault tolerance," he said. His department gets its funding through individual research grants and is on a tight budget. The $12,000 Ross said he was quoted as the cost of one year of maintenance with an EMC SAN upgrade was more than the department wanted to spend on an entire system, including software, hardware and maintenance.

The Clariion's costs came in part from redundancy features like dual controllers and data paths, which Ross said are not really needed in his department. "What we're concerned about is performance while reading longitudinal databases for research studies and costs," he said. "Our clients come to us expecting the research to be done over a period of months – we can survive being down for a day." StorMagic sells its product only in single-controller configurations, but is considering adding high-availability configurations in future releases, according to a company spokesperson.

StorMagic sells software that turns server or whitebox storage hardware into an iSCSI SAN. The university purchased the software along with a 16-bay Supermicro chassis from channel partner Sikich. Eight bays are configured with 750 GB SATA drives, and Ross said the university will eventually add eight more 1 TB drives for another six usable terabytes.

Currently, the system is in production for backup to disk, but ultimately Ross said he hopes to use it to support Microsoft's Hyper-V server virtualization and Windows 2008 operating system. "I'm waiting until Service Pack 1, which I usually do," Ross said, but he has tested the OS already.

Ross had experimented with a beta copy of the String Bean Microsoft iSCSI initiator software before Microsoft acquired String Bean in 2006. "That convinced me that iSCSI was effective and viable," he said. Ross looked into the Windows Storage Server, which provides an iSCSI target as well, but said he was put off by the fact that he'd have to purchase the target as part of a preintegrated package from an OEM. "I couldn't find just a way to bring a Windows server up as a target," he said, until a reseller told him about StorMagic.

In keeping with his do-it-yourself preferences, Ross said he's hoping StorMagic will allow him to change the event notifications it automatically generates today. "They put notifications into three buckets: information, warning or error," he said. "But I'd like the ability to classify what's an error and what's just information."

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