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Coraid EtherDrive helps Emerson College simplify its VM management

Emerson College moved off its Fibre Channel SAN and simplified its virtual server environment with Coraid's EtherDrive SRX Ethernet storage array.

When the three-person IT team at Boston-based Emerson College decided to simplify the communications and arts institution's data center, the first thing to go was tape. Fibre Channel was next.

The college replaced its direct-to-tape backup system with a disk-to-disk off-site replication product, according to Frankie Frain, Emerson's manager of network systems. No surprise there, since many IT groups have gone from tape to disk backup.

Switching from Fibre Channel (FC) to Ethernet storage is also not unheard of, although FC is far from being as endangered as tape. But what Emerson did that was different was to move to two Coraid EtherDrive SRX arrays, rather than a more common iSCSI Ethernet storage system, while it consolidated servers with VMware in May 2012.

Frain and his team support more than 6,000 active users that include undergraduate and graduate students, as well as full- and part-time faculty and staff. But Frain said that when he came to Emerson, "Our IT department had fallen behind in converting our server environment into an all-VM [virtual machine] situation."

So Frain and his two colleagues decided to shrink and simplify the data center so they could manage it better. The process included replacing the 36 TB FC SAN with Coraid. Emerson continues to use a 360 TB EMC Isilon system for video editing, but Frain said he intends to migrate the rest of the data off the FC SAN as soon as possible.

The tape backup system was difficult to upgrade and install new servers for because it meant acquiring new chassis and reconfiguring the FC storage, Frain said. When he replaced that system with a disk-to-disk off-site replication system, his VAR recommended Coraid EtherDrive storage.

According to Coraid, its EtherDrive and EtherCloud Ethernet-based storage systems use a distributed operating system and Layer 2 networking to provide a scale-out system for virtualized environments, high-performance computing and cloud storage. Coraid also positions its ATA over Ethernet storage as cheaper and easier to use than iSCSI SANs, which are cheaper and easier to use than Fibre Channel.

Frain said he liked Coraid's flexibility and ease of management. "Buy the chassis now, buy the drives later," he said, repeating the Coraid pitch. That caught his attention, and further investigation revealed a system that was easy to set up and manage.

"It became obvious when we came across Coraid that the setup was very simple," Frain said. "[Coraid was] selling themselves on their hard-drive flexibility, and we could really see an upgrade path. The management was very simple, especially compared to FC. That was tremendously important to us. And the price was actually really good."

Emerson had its Coraid EtherDrive SRX arrays in full production as its main storage by last September. The college started with four chassis and 72 TB of total capacity. Frain introduced the Coraid system into the data center one chassis at a time, and began moving virtual machines within an hour.

Simple as it was to set up, there were still configuration issues.

"One of the things we really liked about the product was that they gave us the option not to use Coraid provisioning software," Frain said. "They said we could provision it on the OS side or in VMware, so we decided to do that -- and then we really didn't provision it properly."

Not getting the expected VM performance, Frain's team took a tip from the Coraid support staff and moved underperforming VMs into newly created arrays with RAID 10. That solved the problem. "It was just about adjusting the provisioning until we got the performance we needed," Frain said.

He estimated that 80% of his servers are now virtualized, with approximately 200 VMs all running on the Coraid EtherDrive arrays.

His team also has plans to move the college's data center into the 920,000-square-foot Markley Group data center in downtown Boston, as well as to create a Los Angeles colocation facility that will support the new Hollywood satellite campus on Sunset Boulevard and serve as a replication site.

Frain said he expects his Boston data center to be populated with all solid-state drives within 12 months, and the SATA drives will be used in the Los Angeles replication facility.

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