Jul 23 2007

Planning for Storage

How one school district plans and pays for its storage each year.

How one school district plans and pays for its storage each year.

School storage is like the furnace in your house. It sits in a dark corner, it goes unnoticed most of the time, and it can be one of the last places you would choose to sink any extra money from your bank account. Yet if you can’t heat your house in the winter, your new furniture, TV and rec room become irrelevant in a hurry.

Schools today are facing more storage-related demands than ever, from vast student information databases accessed by more people, to multimedia student projects, to laws governing the availability of school information. With more of everything becoming digital and data protection needs increasing, the question of how to maintain that information, keep it available to those who need it, and protect its security lands right at the feet of the information technology director.

Appleton’s Needs

This is the point where planning and practicality converge for Wisconsin’s Appleton Area School District. For six years, the district of 15,000 students has faithfully been planning for this moment — and the next.

Three main factors push the district’s growing storage needs: student and staff file storage and backup; staff e-mail retention issues; and business system database growth and data collection needs. Combined, these factors double Appleton’s storage needs every year.

Five years ago, the average student needed 10 megabytes of storage; today’s typical student requires 100MB. Students can exceed this limit only through teacher approval, which is necessary for graphic or computer-aided design students. And these needs will jump again, as soon as the district chooses to keep student work from year to year. Currently the district deletes all its student accounts every summer.

Staff needs have grown because their overall knowledge of technical resources has also grown. Digital recordings, posted lesson plans and file sharing have increased the need for storage, as has the higher quality of digital pictures. Appleton also keeps some files — such as lesson plans — in an essential folder that can be burned to some other storage medium.

E-mail retention is a big issue. Training users to delete attachments is impractical, and sorting through a couple thousand staff accounts is impossible. With laws governing the ability to recall electronic information and fear of users being accountable, e-mail storage continues to grow.

At the same time, data collection needs are ballooning. School districts now record much more information than in the past. Years of data are saved in various systems so teachers and administrators can analyze and use that knowledge to change instruction.

To serve these needs, Appleton has followed two steps, installing storage area networks to cover specific needs and using virtual local area networks to govern access to certain systems.

The SAN storage allows for flexible growth. All 15,000 student accounts are on one server, while staff accounts are on a separate server on the same SAN. A SAN also holds the district’s database systems. This arrangement offers better disk response time as well as flexible growth options.

Covering Costs

The district has a $2 million budget for technology each year and spends about 10 percent of that for storage and equipment. Appleton now uses servers as low-end processors connected to network storage. This allows for quick growth and flexible storage with easier recovery, more redundancy and better throughput. This method costs more up front, but with flexibility and longevity, it should lower the district’s total cost of ownership.

The IT department did take some false steps along the way. It started with distributed file storage of staff and students per building, but the maintenance was higher. This setup also forced the department to handle every quota policy separately and pay for more server licenses. When the bandwidth between buildings increased, Appleton was able to centralize the storage and minimize the licenses needed.

Another mistake was buying high-end powerful servers because officials thought they might need the power in the future. The district could have saved money and gotten the same performance from less-expensive blade servers.

Access Granted

Appleton runs 100 megabits to the desktop, with gigabit fiber between all locations providing faster access to critical data. The new network connects 16 elementary schools, four middle schools, three high schools, four administrative locations and three other facilities in a five-mile radius.

The district’s network also can handle a variety of traffic types, such as the transmission of VoIP and data, while continuing to deliver consistent quality and remain reliable for teachers and students.

With many different types of users, from principals to students, Appleton needed a system that would give users the access they need while keeping vital information protected. Users are authenticated by a secure database when they log in. This security, along with the robust network, allows the district to add streaming video and more distance learning and to expand its wireless capabilities.

Planning Backup

The district handles backup in several ways. It partners with the local technical college and shares its fiber network with the city, county and technical college. The district’s networks are separate, but Appleton does share storage. This cuts overall support, implementation and purchasing expenses. Because of this sharing, the district is careful to partition school data according to the entity agreements, because the district splits costs based on the percentage of overall storage owned.

Appleton is also implementing a virtual tape library system to be used for data backup and is investigating the possibility of using a reference information storage system to archive its e-mail. It is considering partnering on both of these projects with the local college and other public agencies for more efficient data operation.

By following a plan, Appleton has been able to handle the growing needs of its district, while adding services and maintaining security, all within its allotted budget.

Sizing Up All-in-Ones

When Jim Hawbaker considers the trend toward all-in-one storage units, he immediately thinks of two things. “It’s a very effective way to truncate 10 servers down to one.” The negative? “It’s putting all your eggs in one basket,” says the technology director for the Appleton (Wisc.) Area School District.

All-in-one storage units allow users to share data between servers without the cost and implementation challenges of typical network storage. —Wayne D’Orio

Storage Checklist

  1. For a small school district, an all-in-one appliance offers the advantage of SAN storage and the processing server. With VMware, this allows a lot of flexibility with server redundancy and consolidation of licenses.
  2. When your district is large enough to consider actually purchasing a SAN, you have to think about the advantage of separating your disk from your processing power for longevity, so that as processing power needs upgrading or the disk space becomes inadequate, you are not making forklift upgrades to your infrastructure but rather just replacing pieces.
  3. Big and more are not better. Consolidate your equipment for maximum performance and efficiency. If your equipment is power- and license-hungry, and not producing effectively, you are expending resources that could be spent on improving the overall educational process.
  4. Quotas and archiving are good things. Move your production files to faster storage and those files rarely used to lower end storage. Look for ways to consolidate or eliminate duplication of files and storage.
  5. Knowledge is a good thing, so do your research before choosing a SAN, network-attached storage or an all-in-one. No single solution fits everyone. Make sure to find the solution that is best for you.

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