Q&A: IT manager deploys iSCSI for Spokane schools

Kevin Mount, lead network administrator for Washington state's Spokane School District, recently spoke with SNW Online executive editor Bruce Hoard about his use of San Mateo, Calif.-based Sanrad Inc.'s iSCSI V-Switch 3000 and the value it offers compared to Fibre Channel technology.

Mount, whose school district has 3,000 employees, 30,000 students and 12,000 PCs, said price and simplicity led him to deploy IP-based storage. Below are excerpts from the interview.

What circumstances led you to purchasing the Sanrad V-Switch 3000s? We were getting requests from teachers and schools for large amounts of storage. We couldn't afford to have that much on our Fibre Channel SAN, so because we buy Gateway servers, and they OEM a serial ATA storage array from Instor [Technologies Inc.], we bought some SCSI-attached storage from them to connect to our Gateway servers, but we found that it was real inflexible. We knew about iSCSI at the time, but we just didn't realize that there was something like the V-Switch 3000.

How many other vendors did you evaluate? At the time, which was about a year and a half ago, we looked at some of the other Fibre Channel vendors that sell serial ATA storage. We looked at some network-attached storage, but most of that is Windows-based, and all of our clients are NetWare clients. At the time, I couldn't find any other vendors that had a similar hardware-based SCSI-to-iSCSI bridge.

Describe your overall IT infrastructure. We've got 56 sites on five OSPF dark fiber Gigabit Ethernet rings that we light ourselves, and it runs throughout the whole city of Spokane. We also have a central data center where there are 20 to 30 Windows servers and about 15 to 20 NetWare servers attached to a Fibre Channel Magnitude SAN from [Xiotech Inc.]. We have four 16-port Brocade switches that are on that SAN, which holds six terabytes of SCSI-based storage, and then we have 24TB of serial ATA storage that we have connected to two iSCSI Sanrad V-Switch 3000s.

Are you doing any archiving on those SATA arrays? Mainly right now, it's just storage. We have two Fibre Channel-attached ADIC Scalar 100 tape libraries with six LTO drives in each of those two libraries. Tape is OK for us right now because we are able to meet our backup windows.

How much pressure were you under to reduce SAN infrastructure costs? We didn't really have a mandate, but after looking at the different Fibre Channel vendors with their serial ATA storage, we could see that it would cost a lot more than buying direct-attached serial ATA storage. At the time, we were willing to give up the flexibility for that huge price difference, and when we realized that we could still have the flexibility with the Sanrad boxes and not add a whole lot of costs, we decided to go with Sanrad.

What kind of a price difference are you talking about? The price for [Fibre Channel] was well over $100,000. I did a calculation recently with the Sanrad device and the Gateway serial ATA storage that we buy. Conservatively speaking, the Fibre Channel stuff was at least more than twice the price because of the Fibre Channel switches and cards.

Were your SATA drives acting as nearline storage? Yes, they're still actively being accessed, it's just that we didn't need the performance that the Fibre Channel SAN provided.

So your tiered storage architecture looks like what? Our main mission-critical applications include our financial systems, our student information system, e-mail, SQL servers and Web servers, all of which are stored on our Fibre Channel SAN. The SAN includes a mix of 73GB SCSI drives and 180GB SCSI drives. There are 64 drives in that box with eight Fibre Channel drives coming out of the back of it into our four different Fibre Channel switches. We also moved a lot of photo data off what is now an IP SAN and onto the serial ATA drives, but we left most of our mission-critical applications on the Fibre Channel SAN.

You were looking for virtualization capabilities, right? That is something we had with our Fibre Channel SAN -- the ability to virtualize the storage on that storage array. We could create virtual disks and attach them to any server that we wanted, but that was something we didn't have with the direct-attached storage. It was something that Sanrad gave us.

Is your iSCSI solution integrated with the Fibre Channel SAN? How does that work? On each of our servers, we have two Gigabit Ethernet cards and we use one of them for our regular data network. The other one is for a special VLAN for the iSCSI network. The servers have a Fibre Channel card in them that is connected to the Fibre Channel network if they have more than one application on them. They also can have the iSCSI SAN connected to them as well.

Describe the capabilities of the V-Switch 3000. They come in two forms. You can buy them with the SCSI or Fibre Channel connections in the back. Since we bought SCSI-attached storage, we bought two V-Switch 3000s with four SCSI ports on the back, and they come with three Gigabit Ethernet ports on the front that you can use to attach servers. In the last three months, we've probably added four to five terabytes worth of data to them. One project we are in the middle of right now is deploying a security video system throughout the school district, and we are recording that video to the serial ATA boxes behind the Sanrads.

Regarding benefits, your PR people say the network storage costs are one-tenth of what they were before. Is that accurate? It saves a lot. The Fibre Channel costs are coming way down, but they're still a lot more than Gigabit Ethernet. Through the flexible virtualization that Sanrad offers, we just go to our Web page and create a chunk of storage right there, assign it an ID, go to a server that is running in iSCSI initiator, and attach that piece of storage. It takes five, maybe 10 minutes at the most. It's all Web browser-based, so it's pretty simple to access from almost anywhere.

Do you have plans to buy more V-Switch 3000s? Possibly. Right now the two we have will probably be OK for quite a while.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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