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Texas college looks to EMC VMAXe for private cloud storage

After virtualizing more than 90% of its servers and forging a private cloud, Lone Star College System upgrades its SAN to deal with peaking capacity requirements.

“Stumbling” into the cloud prompted the IT team at Lone Star College System to overhaul its SAN to keep up with unexpectedly large increases in capacity and processing requirements. The Houston-based college will upgrade to the new EMC VMAXe enterprise system with solid-state drives (SSDs) and FAST VP automated tiering software for private cloud storage.

The community college has 90,000 students in 16 locations across 1,400 square miles. Three years ago, its CIO office set out to implement a more efficient infrastructure to better support the schools’ business processes, said Link Alander, associate vice chancellor of technology services at Lone Star College System. After a massive VMware server virtualization push, Lone Star soon found itself with a private cloud.

“We stumbled into the cloud,” Alander said. “Our goal really wasn't a private cloud. I was anti-cloud hype. I thought it was B.S. I came from a mainframe base. I looked at it as another client/server mode.

“Our goal was straightforward," he added. "We were designing a five-nines enterprise. Virtualization was the only answer to provide the highest availability, so we set a virtualization-first strategy.”

After Lone Star put together an infrastructure that allows it to dynamically move applications and increase resources, Alander realized they had “created a major private cloud.”

How does he definite private cloud?

“To me, a private cloud means elasticity,” he said. “That’s our ultimate challenge. We have 90,000 students. Every year we register in the fall and spring, and have a huge demand for our ERP [enterprise resource planning], they just pound the daylights out of it. Now I have elastic ERP. I can dynamically expand resources, throttle up our capacity to meet demand, then throttle it down and use those resources elsewhere. We can shift resources around quite a bit.”

Lone Star College System also uses hybrid clouds, including Microsoft Live@edu for student email, Rackspace for Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Blackboard for Platform as a Service. “To me, a public cloud means you have no engagement or management of it,” Alander said. “Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are public clouds. For a hybrid cloud, we have the back end to manage authentication and troubleshoot. [The cloud providers] do the overhead and everything else.”

The first step in Lone Star switching to the private cloud was server virtualization. The school began using VMware in 2009, and had 75% of its servers virtualized by the end of the year. Then it rolled out Oracle PeopleSoft ERP and virtualized 99% of its databases. Now, 93% of its servers are virtualized and Alander said that number will probably hit 96% after Lone Star virtualizes its Microsoft Exchange servers.

Alander said the project helped consolidate 13 distributed IT sites into two major data centers and saved approximately $600,000 in capital expenditures.

But all that virtualization has turned storage capacity management into a major challenge. “Everybody says VM sprawl is the biggest challenge in the private cloud,” Alander said. “But VM sprawl is easy to take care of. You just need a plan for monitoring and adding capacity. The biggest challenge is doing true capacity management, making sure you have that capacity and availability so when a business process comes on, you can deploy the solution rapidly without having to go out and purchase a ton of storage. Capacity is the bigger challenge in the cloud.”

Before Lone Star College System’s server virtualization project, the college had “a whopping 20 TB on a SAN and another 10 TB in a DR [disaster recovery] site for our ERP. So the best way to put it is, we had no true centralized SAN,” Alander said.

The school now has 400 TB of storage on EMC Clariion CX4-960s -- 200 TB in the main site that replicates with EMC RecoverPoint to a collocation site. It also has 250 TB of Hewlett-Packard LeftHand storage for a VM farm, an EMC Centera for archiving, and a VCE Vblock consisting of EMC storage, Cisco networking and VMware software for virtual desktop pilots.

Lone Star is upgrading to EMC’s new VMAXe storage arrays in a few months. “We’re seeing issues with this much virtualization,” said Alander, adding that the new VMAXe uses faster processors, has more cache and generates more IOPS than his Clariions.

“We’re doing fine, but we’re seeing backplane processing and cache problems and we want to head it off. Our goal is five-nines of availability, and that’s what I’m measured against constantly. That encompasses everything from storage to virtualization to monitoring. We realize we need that processing power that VMAXe brings.”

Alander said the new VMAXe systems will have SSD trays to increase database performance and Lone Star will use EMC’s FAST VP automated tiering software. Tiering is currently done manually.

Alander said when he began virtualizing servers, he expected about a 3x increase in storage capacity based on analyst firms’ reports. But he’s up to nearly a 6x increase in capacity. “That’s why we have to upgrade,” he said.  “We also didn’t realize how many IOPS you need to run a flexible cloud.”

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