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UK schools leap into SAN space

Struggling rural schools in England have begun to improve through a high-end SAN infrastructure and e-learning applications.

The last thing a failing school might think of implementing to improve standards is a SAN. Maybe more teachers or books perhaps? But not in the rural north east of England, where things got so bad the region had to completely rethink its education system.

The north east has always been one of the worst pockets of poverty in the country and this was reflected in the past few years by its position at the bottom of the school league tables.

That's gradually changing, according to Ray Ford, director of ICT and e-learning for a RAZ or Rural Achievement Zone project in the area. RAZ is a government funded scheme that sponsors development for education, business and healthcare in traditionally under resourced areas.

"The education sector in the UK is exploding with vocational courses that are becoming part of the standard curriculum," Ford says. "The problem is that many areas have a lack of IT infrastructure to support it…there's not much money there," he says.

Two and half years ago Ford bought a bunch of cheap disk arrays from Raidtec in Ireland, virtualization from StoreAge and several switches from Vixel (now owned by Emulex) and believe it or not created a SAN that links 20 primary schools and one secondary school together, connecting 5,500 kids on a single storage area network.

Ford says it has made a considerable difference. Now these children are creating digital videos at school, logging on to email accounts every day, creating much of their work online and gaining qualifications like the European Computer Driving License, which qualifies students in a whole range of different IT skills.

The SAN was working fine until the capacity grew from 1 TB to 5 TBs in two years. "Kids produce work fast," Ford says. Managing the back-up requirements with this much data eventually became a struggle. "My bandwidth was going down to nil every time I did a backup and we have to be able to recover data fast during the day so the hit on the network was slowing down all the other applications," he explains.

Interesting. Why would a school have such rigorous back-up requirements, compated with say a bank? Think of it this way Ford says. If an employee loses their data they are expected to start over again. If a child looses their work they can't repeat the lesson, it's too late. "Kids delete each others work all the time, they borrow each others passwords or one goes away from the desk for a moment and another kid sits down and erases their work.".

In other words Ford had to design the network to handle point-in-time snapshots that could retrieve the data quickly but without impacting production time. The traffic is also very sporadic and at peak times when all the kids log-off or log-on at the start of a lesson the network takes a big hit. Ford decided that he needed a SAN backbone switch that could prioritize different applications, ensuring that the most important requests got answered first by the network.

He searched high and low among the traditional Fibre Channel switch vendors for a product that could correlate different tiers of storage, different applications, users or groups with different levels of service, much like high-end telco switches that use flow-based traffic control protocols such as ATM to deliver SLAs (service level agreements).

The problem with Fibre Channel, he found, is that it has a fairly basic way of handling traffic congestion. It slows down all the traffic and gives each request fair and equal access to the storage. This means that important applications can be held-up by insignificant ones.

"Fibre Channel switches are like black boxes, you can't see into them to do any kind of traffic controlling," he says.

Instead, he heard from channel partners that SanDial's Shadow 14000 connection-orientated switch might be worth a look for traffic shaping on SANs. SanDial has about 20 customers including First Data, New Balance, Epsilon and Harte Hanks among others, all using its switch to manipulate bandwidth and perform policy-based network management.

Ford was impressed with the company, took the plunge and recently installed its Shadow 14000. "I am now able manage traffic through the graphical ShadowView management utility, which you can use to set policies, create application policy groups (APGs), dynamically assign switch ports and so forth and my back-up takes days rather than weeks now," he says.

He is running 36 ports and is about to add another 12. He says one of the bonuses with the switch is the ability to buy ports in increments of two. "With Cisco, Brocade and McData you can only buy in slots of 16 or 32 ports." And he notes that the price of these incumbent products immediately ruled them out.

"There's no ROI or TCO in a school, they don't make any money, it translates into QoS in the classroom, better retention and better grades," he says.

Integration challenges because of multi-vendor hardware, multi-generation hardware and multiple different operating systems caused him some stress in the beginning getting the new switches installed, but otherwise it's been fairly painless he says.

In the near future he is hoping to extend the initiative to the SMB market, adding them to the network. "Small businesses could pay for space on the SAN, have their passwords and their service levels…You can only do this with an intelligent network," he says.

Watch out Cisco, SanDial is eating your lunch!

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