Universitys iSCSI Systems Make the Grade

By Cindy Waxer  |  Posted 2006-03-13

Universitys iSCSI Systems Make the Grade

For a well-respected educational institution, North Carolina Central University had a storage system that was barely making the grade.

With more than 8,000 students and 1,600 faculty and staff members, the nations first public university founded for African-Americans relied on more than 50 servers with DAS (direct-attached storage) running on a hodgepodge of platforms, including Windows, Linux, Unix and Novell.

But a difficult-to-manage system only hinted at NCCUs real storage troubles.

Confronted with a recent uptick in student enrollment, the university was fast running out of storage space for backing up e-mail and other critical applications. As a result, e-mail messages often remained parked on a server until an NCCU network administrator could physically free up additional memory.

Servers were proliferating in every department solely to gain storage space for data, such as radio station music files and art department images.

With servers scattered in individual shops all over campus, NCCU was finding it extremely difficult to adhere to compliance and security policies set by the university and state government.

And plans to upgrade the universitys most critical application, a SunGard SCT Banner ERP (enterprise resource planning) tool, called for a sizable investment in storage technology, including backup, remote replication and disaster recovery.

"At that time, we were just throwing servers on the network to keep up with everything that was happening on campus," said Greg Marrow, NCCUs CIO, in Durham.

Marrow said he knew NCCU needed a solution that could handle a growing storage infrastructure, as well as support decades worth of financial and student records—documents that the university is legally bound to store under federal and state regulations.

So, in early 2005, Marrow and Cecil White, NCCUs IT director, embarked on a search for the perfect storage solution.

Fibre Channel was the first logical choice, Marrow said, given its popularity and proven track record for connecting computer servers to shared storage devices and transmitting data between devices at rates of up to 4G bps.

Click here to read the results of eWEEK Labs comparison between Fibre Channel and iSCSI.

But, upon reviewing solutions from Fibre Channel vendors including EMC and StorageTek, Marrow and White discovered that the high-level skills required to maintain a Fibre Channel storage system surpassed those of NCCUs six-person IT team. Whats more, the technologys exorbitant costs far exceeded the universitys meager IT budget.

Desperate for a suitable solution, NCCU decided to bring in a solutions integrator to assess its needs. NCCU turned to VeriStor Systems, a systems integrator that specializes in enterprise data storage solutions.

After working with NCCU to identify its primary challenges, VeriStor determined that an iSCSI SAN (storage area network) from EqualLogic was the most efficient and cost-effective means for meeting the universitys unique storage challenges.

iSCSI is an IP-based storage networking standard for connecting data storage facilities.

Because of the widespread popularity of IP networks, iSCSI can be used to transmit data over existing Ethernet networks such as LANs, WANs and the Internet at a fraction of the cost of Fibre Channel.

Whereas a Fibre Channel SAN requires the installation of high-priced host bus adapters and drivers, all it takes to connect a server to an iSCSI network is a Gigabit Ethernet network.

Next Page: iSCSI can be a tough sell.

iSCSI Can Be a

Tough Sell">

Despite these benefits, Steve Bishop, VeriStors vice president of technology, said that iSCSIs recent entree into the world of storage technologies made it a tough sell in the case of NCCU.

To help boost Marrow and Whites confidence, VeriStor conducted both internal and off-site benchmarking using tools such as Iometer to demonstrate that an iSCSI SAN could support the universitys various needs.

"In a lot of cases, iSCSI is a technology that can sell itself, but you have to be able to explain it properly and show the customer that it can support the availability and performance requirements of their applications," said Bishop, in Duluth, Ga.

Simulating the key characteristics of NCCUs primary application servers in an iSCSI environment was the first piece of evidence the university required to commit to iSCSI. The next step involved canvassing colleagues on their storage decisions. NCCU is part of the 16-member University of North Carolina system.

"Being part of the university system, we were able to poll a number of other institutions and get some information on who were the leading storage vendors in the market at the time," said Marrow.

Following a three-month investigation, NCCU opted to deploy an EqualLogic iSCSI SAN in October 2005.

Unlike Fibre Channel, which Bishop said can take upward of a year to fully deploy, the universitys iSCSI SAN was up and running within a couple of days.

And, because the universitys IT staff was already skilled in Ethernet, the transition was quick and efficient.

"The decision really came down to costs, time to service and skills," Marrow said. "iSCSI fit like a glove in terms of the kind of skills that we had here in the organization, and it allowed us to implement a solution within budget."

Currently, NCCU has two EqualLogic PS200Es iSCSI arrays running in its data center, with a third running at a disaster recovery site 15 miles away. Six more arrays have been purchased so far—one for the remote site and five that will be used for other applications and to add capacity over time. It didnt take long for NCCUs iSCSI SAN to help consolidate the universitys scattered servers and to drastically cut costs.

According to Marrow, whereas the cost per megabyte of DAS is 28 cents, the cost per megabyte of iSCSI SAN is 12 cents. As a result, by switching from DAS to a 50.4TB storage environment, NCCU has saved nearly $100,000, according to Marrow.

Another way in which iSCSI has helped the university cut costs is by reducing the need for additional servers. To accommodate a recent spike in storage demands, the university had budgeted for the purchase of 10 DAS servers at an approximate cost of $7,000 each. However, in light of its iSCSI SANs increased storage capabilities, Marrow said NCCU has been able to slice that order in half, at a cost savings of $35,000.

Next Page: Business continuity and backup benefits.

Business Continuity and Backup


But the price tag isnt the only metric for evaluating the benefits of iSCSI.

Whereas the introduction of Fibre Channel often calls for extensive on-site training, NCCUs IT staff was already skilled in Ethernet, thereby enabling business continuity in the midst of an extensive storage system overhaul.

Even more important, NCCUs storage system has been able to provide the university with a backup and recovery system to prevent the loss of data.

While NCCUs ERP system had its own backup, Marrow said the university was running out of space on a daily basis for backing up e-mail and other applications.

As a result, the backup process often called for the temporary halting of select systems, as well waiting until the evening to perform necessary backup functions.

That has all changed with NCCUs new storage system, according to Marrow.

Instead, EqualLogics iSCSI storage arrays offer backup and recovery capabilities and remote replication built into the product at no additional cost.

Data is automatically replicated straight over the universitys Ethernet to a remote site.

"When were replicating, were keeping a live copy of our data so that, in the event that we lose our systems here on campus, we can recover that data quickly, almost in real time," Marrow said.

Whats more, Marrow said NCCU no longer needs to endure system downtime and interrupted information flow during the evening hours to back up important data.

"Thats critical, particularly because classes now can go up to about 6 p.m. With our distance education program, we absolutely have to offer system availability for our students for longer times now," Marrow said.

But its NCCUs ERP system that stands to benefit the most from the universitys new and improved storage infrastructure. With its plentiful storage capacity, ease of use and cost efficiencies, the iSCSI SAN allows for the deployment of a new version of SCT Banner.

This upgrade will enable the university to use an integrated Oracle database running on a Unix platform to share information, instead of having student information, finance, financial aid, human resources and other key applications run separately. Just one more reason iSCSI is earning top marks from NCCUs much-relieved IT team.

Cindy Waxer is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Contact her at

Case file

  • Customer North Carolina Central University
  • Location Durham
  • Organizational snapshot NCCU is a liberal arts institution with 8,200 students pursuing undergraduate degrees in more than 100 disciplines and graduate degrees in more than 40; faculty and staff number approximately 1,600
  • Business need Confronted with an increase in student enrollments, a scattered network of servers and a desperate need to upgrade its ERP system, NCCU sought a cost- effective and easy-to-implement storage solution that could stop server proliferation and build a high-performance SAN for all applications
  • Technology partner VeriStor Systems
  • Recommended solution NCCU chose EqualLogics iSCSI SAN solution; two PS200Es iSCSI arrays run in its data center, while a third operates at a disaster recovery site 15 miles away; six more arrays have been purchased so far—one for the remote site and five that will be used for other applications to add capacity over time

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