University of Toronto Network System

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A network-attached storage (NAS) system at the University of Toronto at Mississauga has made it possible for all 6,400 students to retrieve their data from anywhere- on or off campus. In the past, students stored files on floppy disks or on servers that could only be accessed from a particular computing services location. However, many files, such as Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentations, are too big for floppies, and students often use different computing centers as they move around campus.

The computing services staff evaluated a range of potential solutions and selected a NAS system over a storage-area network (SAN) because it was a better fit for file serving. Now, each student has a 10 MB storage area that he or she can access from any Microsoft Windows or Unix desktop at the university or from anywhere off campus via an Internet connection.

'We have received so much positive feedback on the NAS approach that, by popular demand, we are planning to expand it to cover 250 faculty members in the near future,' says J'e Lim, manager of computing services at the university. The new storage system is more convenient for students and less labor-intensive for the technical staff than the decentralized storage used in the past, he adds.

Mississauga, one of three campuses of the University of Toronto, offers degree programs in sciences, social sciences, management, and humanities and has more than 150 graduate students, predominantly in the life sciences. Students frequently use the campus' nine computing centers to prepare class assignments and conduct independent research.

With servers located at each computing center, it wasn't practical to offer each student dedicated storage on one server. Most students use multiple computing centers so offering storage at one center was a poor solution, complicated by the fact that there wasn't enough local storage to go around.
As a result, most students carried their work on floppy disks, which became increasingly difficult as average file sizes increased. Students often had to download large programs or work with graphics files that were too large to fit on a single floppy. Also, floppy disks sometimes became corrupted, and students who had neglected to back up their files had to redo significant amounts of work.

Some students tried to get around these problems by making special arrangements to store larger files at one of the computing centers, but this created administrative headaches for the staff because maintenance and backup tasks had to be repeated on multiple machines located throughout the campus.

The process of finding a solution to this problem, Lim says, led to a major debate among the technical staff. Some favored the SAN approach, in which servers are connected to storage at the block level, while others preferred the NAS approach, which connects the entire network to storage that is accessible at the file level. A consensus was reached to go with NAS because staff members concluded that it provided a simpler, more robust and more economical approach to what was, in essence, a file-serving application.

The technical staff then conducted a detailed evaluation of the leading NAS solutions. An important consideration was maintaining compatibility with the multiple computing environments used at the university, including Windows and Unix workstations and a Novell Inc. NetWare Version 4.11 local-area network.

'While no NAS system would support Novell directly, we found one—the Auspex [Systems Inc.] NetServer—that provided an innovative workaround,' Lim says. 'Our [Windows] NT workstations log in through Novell, and Novell mounts the NAS through Samba [Common Internet File System] emulation software. Then the NT workstations can talk directly to Samba without going through the Novell server.' Samba is an open source suite that provides seamless file and print services to CIFS clients.

The technical staff also saw value in the Auspex architecture, in which the input/output node is the fundamental building block. Each node contains an dual-processor motherboard that has logically separate processing functions. The network processor manages network protocols and associated caches. The file and storage processor is dedicated to managing file systems and associated storage hardware. The result is a dramatic improvement in performance—approximately twice as many network file system operations per second as comparable systems.

Lim and his team selected an Auspex NetServer with two 100 MB I/O ports. One is connected to a Unix Internet server and the other to a virtual LAN consisting primarily of Novell servers at the local computing centers. Each student has 10 MB of storage space that can be used for local storage and for his or her personal Web site. The system currently has 500 GB of storage space configured with RAID 5 redundancy, as well as dual power supplies.

The Auspex service team worked with Lim's staff to get the server up and running in minimal time. Plans are in place to expand the storage capacity to 1 terabyte during the next few years as the amount allotted to students rises and more members of the university community receive storage space.

Students can access their storage resources throughout the university, and they can also upload and download files from any location where they have an Internet connection. To access the files from a PC on campus, students simply log in and select Start/MyFiles or click on the myfiles icon at the top of their desktop screen. To access their files from an off-campus site via the Internet, they log in to the university's FTP site and are immediately directed to the proper directory.

The NAS solution has also substantially reduced the maintenance workload for Lim's staff. Typically, maintenance tasks such as cleaning and backing up user directories only have to be performed once at a single location, reducing the maintenance workload to a fraction of what would be needed if all students were provided storage on local machines.

Auspex NetServer offers an approach called creating point-in-time copies, which involves writing changes to a second device during a backup to ensure a clean image of the system at the time the backup began. Lim's team makes a point-in-time copy of the entire storage system every night and stores one week's worth of snapshots for access by students who may have inadvertently deleted a file.

The system's performance has been excellent, Lim says. 'Since the unit was installed, we have never had a single minute of downtime, nor have we ever had to call on [the company's] service staff. We have dealt enough with the people at Auspex to know that they are great to work with. They take a proactive approach by alerting us to any upgrades or possible problems.'

He adds: 'But the best part of implementing NAS has been the positive feedback that we have received from students who no longer have to squeeze their files onto floppy disks or try to remember which of the university's computing centers they used to store an important file. Naturally, the faculty members now want access to the same system, and we are in the process of expanding its capacity to accommodate their needs.'

For more information, contact J'e Lim, University of Toronto at Mississauga, at (905) 828-5311.

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