Brian Troudy of Corona-Norco Unified School District in California says virtualization works well with centralized storage: “Once we put centralized storage in place in conjunction with virtual machines, it really revolutionized the way our infrastructure team does their job. Now we're able to provision a server and storage basically at will.”
Nov 08 2010

Storage Lessons

California school district centralizes storage for higher efficiency, while a counterpart puts its data in the cloud as part of an open-access policy.

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The IT staff at the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Norco, Calif., knew there had to be a better way to manage data.

Sure, running dedicated storage at 48 school sites had its benefits, largely because users could access data from local servers. But the decentralized approach wasn't ideal for provisioning and managing IT on a large scale.

As its base of applications grew, the district sought a more centralized approach that would let it add capacity in a single location while enhancing manageability. The district, with 56,000 students and 5,000 staff members, chose high-density centralized disk arrays, along with centralized backup.

“In the past, if a server went down, data was inaccessible,” says Brian Troudy, IT manager for Corona-Norco. “Every school would have its own individual server; if it had a failed drive, it sat in some closet and never alerted anyone. There was no monitoring or visibility.”

The district's move to centralized storage was made to support at least three critical applications: video surveillance, document scanning and digitization, and data center virtualization.

Video surveillance is used throughout district buildings for student and faculty safety, consuming 250 terabytes of storage. Document scanning is used to electronically save previously paper-based records about students and staff. Scanned images use about 2.5TB of storage.

The virtualization project has far-reaching implications. Virtualization is touted as a way to flexibly manage server resources and configure a network, allowing server resources to be dynamically assigned to support users and applications. The district created nearly 100 virtual machines on about eight physical servers. The strategy lets students and faculty gain access to their documents and files regardless of the computer they're working from or logged into. The VMs use about 10TB of data.

Virtualization dovetails with the benefits of centralized storage. “Once we put centralized storage in place in conjunction with virtual machines, it really revolutionized the way our infrastructure team does their job,” Troudy says. “Now we're able to provision a server and storage basically at will.”

Corona-Norco selected Nexsan SATABeast products on the strength of their capacity, features and pricing. SATABeast units feature exceptional density: 42 drives at 2TB per drive can be packed into a single 4-unit rack. The district now has five “Beasts” and expects to purchase more in the future.

The products also feature direct high-speed Fibre Channel and iSCSI connectivity, along with quick provisioning of storage capacity, Troudy says. All were factors in selecting Nexsan. Plus, pricing was critical.

“Their pricing model is phenomenal – you buy the array, no software licenses or keys are needed; you get three years of hardware support out of the box, with software upgrades for the life of the product,” he adds.

At the same time, the district is using EMC Avamar technology to back up critical applications and services automatically. The centralized storage is located in district offices, with 1 gigabit-per-second connectivity from each facility to the central storage pool over dark fiber. The district expects to fully phase out its direct-attached, decentralized storage in about 18 months, Troudy says.

The Offsite Cloud

While the networked storage model is working as expected at Corona-Norco, not all districts are embracing centralization.

At the Riverside Unified School District in California, an upgrade to a new learning management and content management system sparked a decision to store all of the district's data offsite in the cloud.

Cloud computing, especially cloud storage, is widely viewed as a technology that can help make infrastructure more flexible – scaling up or down as applications dictate – without the hardware and maintenance investment required to manage storage.

Jay McPhail, director of instructional technology for Riverside's 42,000-student district, says the move was part of an overall philosophy to make it easy for students and faculty to access computing resources. Among other features, the learning management system includes a mobile application that can run on devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

“When we talk to vendors, they've got to provide cloud-based resources onto any device,” McPhail says. “If they're not able to go that way, we're not using that vendor.”

In fact, district-owned mobile computing gear can be checked out by students, and they are encouraged to use mobile devices.

The amount of data a Nexsan 4-unit SATABeast can store

Source: Nexsan Technologies

“We encourage [students] to use them as their [personal] devices: we want it to become theirs,” says McPhail. “We want the same thing in storage. We want a vibrant storage space that can expand/contract simply and easily; we just pick up the phone and ask.”

Jeff Boles, senior analyst at the Taneja Group, says the elasticity in storage capacity that the cloud promises is for real. “Cloud solutions are built on a different architecture than traditional storage, so you're no longer limited by physical resources and can scale out much better,” Boles says. “You can turn up capacity very easily.”

McPhail says 42,000 users in the Riverside district have access to the cloud, with about 15,000 users actively using the system. The district expects to have completely switched to cloud-based storage by 2012.

3 Reasons Why Centralized Storage Makes Sense

Here's what IT shops can do with a centralized model:

  • Leverage skills more effectively: Instead of adding a storage admin function to the job of an IT or other staff member in a given school building, centralization lets a storage expert work in one location and apply his or her expertise to all the storage infrastructure.
  • Decrease management investments: By having the right expertise focused on the right job in the right location, there's less overhead involved in moving people and systems around to address issues that crop up.
  • Reduce the break–fix effort in remote locations: If a server goes down, taking storage with it, that requires getting new hardware shipped to a remote location, then figuring out who can install it and when. With a central model, all replacement hardware or parts come to one location, where they can be managed quickly and directly by a storage or other IT expert.
Max Dolberg