Storing Lots of Classroom Content at Fitchburg State

By Linda L. Briggs

Most of today’s splashiest new classroom technologies have at least one thing in common – they tend to require lots of storage space on the campus network. Audio/video presentations, the use of document cameras, and podcasting, for example, all call for large amounts of file space, both for storing the initial content, and for backup purposes.

At Fitchburg State College, a relatively small state college about 50 miles west of Boston, CIO Charlie Maner has dealt with the classroom content storage issue through a new iSCSI storage area network (SAN). The new system serves as the infrastructure for all campus technology projects, including Fitchburg’s aggressive podcasting initiative.

In replacing the existing ad-hoc system of standalone servers with a state-of-the-art iSCSI storage area network, one of Maner’s goals was to ensure maximum uptime in classrooms, along with plenty of storage space for Fitchburg initiatives like audio/visual innovations and document cameras in classes.

The SAN solution, from LeftHand Networks, provides economic and expandable hard drive space for content that instructors use in class through laptops or desktop systems. The new storage-area network is also used to store and back up the considerable content developed during class and made available later through the college’s Blackboard learning management system.

Fitchburg also began its laptop program last year. This year, all first-year students are required to use a laptop. The program will be rolled out to new students successively over a four-year cycle. Adding to the network load, Maner estimates that some 80 percent of students are using the LeftHand SAN for their own storage and backup purposes.

Cost savings have come from the server consolidation possible in moving to a SAN. Fitchburg had over 50 storage servers distributed across the campus network in its previous direct-attached storage system; that’s now been reduced to 20. “We had grown in a non-strategic way,” Maner says. “If an academic department needed storage, they would buy their own file server. Before you know it, we had seven file servers on campus all doing the same thing. And they all had to be backed up.”

Fitchburg – with just 3,200 full-time equivalent undergraduate students – is unusual for a campus its size in that all of its servers are fault-tolerant, including those running Blackboard.

That’s possible because the school has two data centers. They are at opposite ends of campus and supplied by separate power feeds. That occurred more by happenstance than planning, Maner admits, but it’s worked well. It ensures that if a faculty member is in the middle of a class and loses network connectivity, a connection can be made to the second data center instead.

That was one consideration in selecting Lefthand Networks: the school wanted a storage area network that could be geographically distributed for greater fault tolerance. “We did want to have load-balanced servers,” Maner says, “and data split between the two data centers.”

The new SAN has 10 terabytes of storage right now and, compared to the school’s earlier system of direct-attached storage, is “far easier to manage [and] to back up.”

As Fitchburg’s storage needs grow, so will the system. Unlike other systems the school considered, this one allows the addition of new storage space while the network is running. That feature is important, Maner says. “We wanted the modularity to grow in an easy, quick way as faculty need more space to store content.” Fitchburg currently has 14 mission-critical servers on the storage area network, running everything from Blackboard to the e-mail system and the student information system. “You really don’t want to take any of those down to add capability,” Maner says. “Most of the other vendors we looked at [required] some form of downtime to add capacity after a certain point.”

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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