“Every end user we add to the environment — whether they are a student, faculty member or administrator — only adds to the ROI we get,” CIO Jerry Waldron says of Salisbury University’s consolidated SAN environment.

Feb 18 2008

Leaving the '80s Behind

Consolidated storage gives a university a radical technology face-lift and changes the way it teaches.

Consolidated storage gives a university a radical technology face-lift and changes the way it teaches.

Before it was fashionable to do so, Salisbury University was living retro in the 1980s.

Up to 2001, its systems had more in common with the mainframe-dominated systems of 1985 than the newer, client-server architecture options made popular in the mid-1990s. CIO Jerry Waldron says the storage environment was “made up of some pretty old stuff” that required much hands-on maintenance and was nearly impossible to scale.

Faced with an aging legacy storage environment, the university on Maryland’s Eastern Shore centralized its network storage to better support its growing student population, extend student services online and dramatically change the way courses are taught. Despite this major equipment upgrade and doubling of the student body, the school was able to contain costs.

As the new millennium dawned, the university’s leadership made it a priority to expand the student body from 3,000 students to more than double that over the next decade. The antiquated storage environment was a severe liability to meeting this goal. The school’s enterprise resource planning applications that manage admissions, registration, grades, housing, billing, donations and other administrative services would need to be scaled immediately to handle the increase in enrollment.

At the same time, the school decided to put these services on the Web, giving students access to their own records, grades and other information. Processes that once were managed by a small group of administrators were now automated and made available to students. Overnight, the school’s systems went from having 150 users to more than 7,000 users, forcing Waldron to rethink how data is stored, accessed and archived.

“We needed fast I/O for our ERP solution. That was priority number one. Everything else was secondary,” Waldron says. “It was obvious that we needed to upgrade our storage environment to a more robust, scalable solution. We had more end users and more transactions than we could handle. And we had a short timeframe to make this all work.”

Waldron worked with services consultants from EMC to deploy a 15-terabyte CLARiiON storage area network that provided the university with a reliable, powerful and scalable storage solution ideally suited for the growing environment, which was now powered by more than 100 servers. The consolidated SAN also supports the school’s e-mail system and personal storage network that gives each student and faculty member a 512-megabyte folder to store files and data. The university also upgraded its document-imaging system with EMC Documentum and deployed EMC NetWorker to handle backups and protect mission-critical data. The entire storage consolidation project took less than six months.

“We simply did not have the people, time or resources to support these new business tools, but the EMC solution essentially automated a lot of the IT management associated with storage while consolidating capacity into a single shared SAN,” Waldron says. “It is an enterprise solution from the core to the edge, able to support multiple applications and environments.”

Growing Need for Storage

As Salisbury’s student body has grown and more student services have been made available on the Web, Waldron has been able to slowly add both Fibre Channel and Advanced Technology Attachment drives to the SAN without adding much complexity or management pain. This scalability lets his shop meet the storage needs of the university community without adding staff or reallocating resources.

The improved storage performance has helped push Salisbury’s student serv­ices online, letting students log in to a Web platform to register for classes, choose housing, pay bills and check grades. The services are now available at all times, improving the student experience.

“Registering online has been an absolute must-have service for us,” Waldron says. “Our environment makes it fairly easy for thousands of students to register for classes at the same time without a major drop in availability or performance. Our students are used to doing things online and have come to expect that level of 24 x 7 service.”

The academic experience at Salisbury has changed as well because of the improved storage reliability and performance. Now, more than 60 percent of courses are offered online and nearly all professors have their own dedicated Web sites where they post announcements, lectures and assignments and facilitate online discussions through message boards and wikis.

“Storage is changing the way we teach, helping to expand the academic discussion away from the classroom,” Waldron says, citing a program that gives students an extra credit on their transcripts (four credits for a typical three-credit course) that is available as an addendum online.

Changing Teaching Styles

This shift is clear within the Geography and Geosciences Department. The new storage solution lets Waldron allocate nearly unlimited capacity to the department, giving professors a powerful hands-on teaching tool. Michael Scott, associate professor and director of the department’s new GIS and Public Administration graduate program, says students are able to work on real-world mapping projects through the school’s learning laboratory.

Currently, students are working with aerial photography to create an accurate map of the DelMarVa Peninsula, a 14-county area that includes parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The most recent piece of the project consists of studying 2,000 images of Wicomico County, Md., with each file more than 100MB in size.

“Not only is this data collected for each of the 14 counties, it’s collected about every two years,” Scott says. “You can see how these data volumes can get out of hand very quickly, and that’s just one data set.”

In addition to the mapping projects, the geography curriculum depends on access to a large number of digital images of landforms and clouds, complex process animations, movies and other large files. Performance is a key benefit, as most projects require multiple images layered onto one another for accurate processing. Scott and the rest of the department rely on the EMC SAN to provide reliable, redundant access to nearly 3TBs of geographic data for teaching and research.

According to Kevin Ross, a senior student in the department, reliable access to network storage is vital. Through the campuswide network, he is able to access his coursework from nearly any computer on campus, giving him the flexibility to complete homework on his own schedule without having to worry about getting lab time. The flexibility of the SAN lets the IT department allocate storage on an individual basis, giving certain end users, computers or whole departments access to different amounts of storage.

“It’s important to have this quick access to files since everything I do for school is on the computer and I need to have it available to me when the assignment is due or when I have to give a presentation, no matter what computer I have access to,” Ross says.

Prior to implementing the SAN, Scott had to limit lab activities because there was no reasonable way to distribute the test data that students needed to process. Now, he can simply create one data source that all students can access. Once they complete the assignment, they simply copy their work to a separate directory, making lab exercises as close to real-world scenarios as possible.

“The students have access to mountains of data that we would have never dreamed of as undergraduates,” he says.

Management Simplicity

Despite the explosion in data, end users and storage capacity, Salisbury employs a single storage administrator to conduct day-to-day maintenance of the storage network and monitor backups. In addition, the operating budget has only increased $30,000 since 2001 despite adding thousands of end users to the student body. According to Waldron, because of its scalability, the current storage environment is capable of supporting 10,000 students easily, an enrollment goal the school hopes to meet in the next couple of years.

“Every end user we add to the environment — whether they are a student, faculty member or administrator — only adds to the ROI we get from the EMC solution,” Waldron says. “It’s that scalable.”

The consolidated storage solution is backed up by NetWorker, protecting both the ATA and Fibre Channel drives without any special modification. Backups are done every afternoon, when most students are finished with classes and are heading to the cafeteria, with the Legato software automating much of the process. A disaster recovery facility is being created in a new School of Management building on campus, providing additional redundancy. The data center will also be used as a teaching laboratory for the management information systems program.

“I can’t believe that we were able to do what we did in only six months,” Wadron says now — looking back.

About Salisbury University

  • 3,000 students in 2001
  • 7,500 students in 2007
  • $30,000 growth in IT’s operating budget in that timeframe

Media to Drive Future Growth

Without question, the information technology bar is raised every September when the new freshman class arrives on campus. Students are becoming more technologically savvy, and in turn, more demanding of IT service. It’s almost to the point where arriving students have spent their entire teenage lives online and can’t remember a time before e-mail, Internet shopping and iTunes. It’s enough to keep an IT manager up at night.

With this pervasive wired mind-set comes a thirst for storage capacity. Students are just as likely to complete homework assignments using PowerPoint, video streaming and design software as Word documents, requiring massive amounts of storage capacity. According to Jerry Waldron, Salisbury University’s CIO, it’s these areas — not administration — that will see the biggest increase in storage requirements over the next several years.

“Art, music, media — these are the programs that are going to be driving demand in the next 18 months,” Waldron says. “We’re going to see these programs more integrated, with students across departments working together on bigger, more bandwidth-driven projects.” For example, he foresees film students producing music videos featuring aspiring musicians and actors from the fine arts department, which are then marketed and publicized by students in the business school and mass communications program.

“Students are raising the bar every day, bringing more technology and technical know-how to campus,” Waldron says. “We need to give them a wide berth and, if necessary, manage storage on an individual basis. Our storage environment needs to have flexibility to meet this need.”

A school’s ability to meet this demand may have an impact on admissions. Says Salisbury senior Kevin Ross, “If I were to go back to that decision knowing I would specialize in [an IT-intensive program like] GIS, I would have to take IT into consideration. Fortunately, I made the right decision the first time.”