University Gives EMC an A for Storage

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Five years ago, East Carolina University realized it had a data problem.

“We were at a point where we couldn’t plug another server into our sever room,” recalled Brent Zimmer, ECU’s systems specialist.

On top of that, data center power was strained to capacity, the amount of data the university was generating was doubling annually, and backup windows were growing out of control. And that was just a few of the storage-related issues ECU was dealing with.

Unable to build a whole new data center because of budgetary constraints, ECU turned to EMC (NYSE: EMC), with whom it already had a relationship, to help it come up with a long-term storage backup and recovery plan that would not only help the university save its data, but save money, power and space too.

A Long-Term Solution

ECU, which has approximately 24,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, already used EMC’s Clariion technology in its data center. So it made sense to the ECU systems team to have a vendor that was familiar with their storage system come down, take a look around, and discuss what their long-term storage and recovery options were.

“We told them what our situation was, what kind of pain points we were having — that we’ve been doubling our storage pretty much every year — and they drew up a long-term strategy for us,” said Zimmer.

Originally, the plan, which involved virtualizing as much data as possible and moving ECU’s servers to a boot-to-SAN model, was to be rolled out slowly over five years. But the initial testing went so successfully, ECU was able to totally deploy in just two years.

Among the changes ECU implemented (between 2004 and 2006): the data center consolidated its stand-alone file servers with EMC Celerra, deployed VMware (NYSE: VMW) software and converted its servers (more than 90 percent of which are from Dell) to an EMC Clariion boot-to-storage area network (SAN) model. Those changes allowed the datacenter to eliminate 156 servers — and saved it $1.8 million, which was more than 18 percent of its budget. The changes also resulted in reduced power consumption (660 megawatts per year less).

Expanding upon its initial success, ECU added EMC’s Rainfinity File Management Appliance to its storage infrastructure in May of this year to further reduce backup times and help ECU’s Joyner Library archive scanned historical documents. At the same time, the data center also upgraded its CX500 and CX600 Clariions to Clariion CX3 model 80s, EMC’s newer midrange networked storage array.

“With 450 terabytes of storage and new applications coming on board, we always have an eye on shrinking our backup windows,” said Zimmer. “We’ve used Rainfinity to archive thousands of historical documents from production to EMC Centera, which reduced backups from 10 hours to a couple of minutes. It might take a few more seconds for researchers to retrieve the documents now, but that’s still more than adequate performance for documents only accessed once or twice a year.”

Zimmer said ECU also plans on using Rainfinity in the not-too-distant future to archive other types of data, such as medical images, which take up huge amounts of space on ECU’s production systems.

Another way that ECU has been able to free up valuable server space — and time — is by archiving Microsoft Exchange e-mails older than 90 days, moving them from the Clariion to its EMC Centera content-addressed storage (CAS) system, the capacity of which doubled this past spring.

“As our Exchange users grew to 50,000 strong, nightly tape backups of Exchange were taking four to five hours and retrieving a specific e-mail from tape for legal discovery could take 60 hours,” said Zimmer. “With archiving, we’ve reduced the production Exchange database from two terabytes to just one terabyte, which has contributed to faster backups, and we can perform legal e-mail discovery in less than an hour.”

In total, all that archiving has saved ECU eight terabytes of production storage.

Is EMC Right for You?

Asked why he was so bullish on EMC, Zimmer pointed to EMC’s solutions: “They’re very cost-effective, and have the tools and the performance that we needed.” Zimmer also liked the customer service and tech support he received from EMC.

“Their support was what really pushed it over the edge, because when you do run into an issue, they’ll send down all their team members to get it fixed for you,” said Zimmer. “That was really the most important thing for us. And it’s the same with Dell and Symantec, our other two strong partners,” who were closely involved in ECU’s storage infrastructure project.

“If we run into an issue, they don’t point fingers at each other,” he said. “They just get together and help us get the problem resolved. That makes a big difference when you’re sitting there at three o’clock in the morning trying to get something fixed.”

As for whether ECU’s storage solutions are right for every university or organization facing similar data storage issues, Zimmer recommended having “a bunch of vendors come in and give you their pitch,” and then seeing if they are interested in truly developing a long-term partnership or relationship with you or just selling you a bunch of stuff.

The important thing, he said, is not that you are “getting the lowest-priced product, but that you’re getting something that meets your needs, with the tools that you need to make it effective and efficient” — and really good tech support.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there that would have been less expensive for us,” said Zimmer. “But if it doesn’t give you the tools to manage it effectively every day, you’re going to be spending a bunch of time doing things that you could have been doing more quickly and more efficiently and not being able to advance your organization.”

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Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff
Jennifer Schiff is a business and technology writer and a contributor to Enterprise Storage Forum. She also runs Schiff & Schiff Communications, a marketing firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.

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