The upgrade to NetApp arrays was prompted by the college's need to support a server virtualization project, while use of primary storage data deduplication included in the arrays was an afterthought which has seen data volumes on disk reduced by 50% or more.
The college's move to shared storage is typical of a large number of UK organisations which have switched to SAN and NAS storage to support server virtualization, as revealed in the recent SearchStorage.co.UK Purchasing Intentions Survey.
Blackpool and the Fylde College has 20,000 students at four major campuses in and around Blackpool. The core app for the institution is a Tribal EBS student records system, which is based on Oracle databases, while student directories and college work also use up a lot of capacity. The college runs a variety of operating systems including Novell Netware, SuSe Linux Enterprise Server, Red Hat Linux and Microsoft Windows.
The existing direct-attached storage to 100-plus physical servers had become onerous to operate and maintain and made growing capacity difficult and expensive, said, Simon Bailey, network manager for the college.
"With the two or three core apps and direct-attached storage it got to the point where we were trying to keep within the maximum available size of a single disk. It took a lot of maintenance," he said.
He added, "We wanted storage in one place. It became difficult to ascertain how much storage would be used in future. And it was inflexible; We kept shoving disks in till the holes were full. So, we wanted to abstract the storage requirement and put it on one device with a second redundant device for disaster recovery."
Following an evaluation process of four different SAN products (see below) Bailey's team bought two NetApp FAS 3020s with 50 TB capacity for the main Bispham site and one FAS 2050 with 35 TB of disk for its secondary central Blackpool location from reseller Alpha Computing at Stockport.
The college IT team implemented the equipment in-house with mostly (75%) SATA drives for user home directories and student data and 25% Fibre Channel drives for the Oracle databases that underpin the student records system.
The college uses NetApp's SnapMirror replication tool to mirror data overnight between sites across a 100 Mbps link, which will soon be upgraded to 500 Mbps. In case of a disaster recovery scenario the college can now rebuild all its systems from data replicated the night before.
While primary storage data deduplication was not on Bailey's initial shopping list, he came to see its benefits after a series of tests several months after the NetApp implementation. Now data deduplication is applied weekly to data including the Oracle databases, a process which cuts data volumes by 50% or more.
Bailey said, "I'm a relatively cautious type of person when it comes to buying technology, so we tried it first on less critical system, got proof of concept and ascertained that it would make us substantial gains. Now we're applying weekly it to business critical systems based on Oracle databases. We could do it every few minutes but that would affect performance."
Prior to selecting NetApp Bailey's team also evaluated products from: EMC, Clariion arrays which were rejected on cost grounds; EqualLogic iSCSI SANs which at the time would only work with Windows servers, and; HP, which Bailey rejected after a conversation with a higher education peer.
He said, "Another university HP SAN customer we knew was having a difficult time with the HP setup. It was simple to configure and build but diagnosing problems was difficult. It could have been a rare case but I felt uncomfortable with it and it put me off."
NetApp was ultimately selected on cost, its ability to work with multiple OSs and ease of manageability, especially concerning the ability to dynamically allocate capacity.